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NC Department of Health and Human Services
NC Division of Public Health
N.C. Public Health Home

Public Health Preparedness & Response

Disaster Epidemiology

Disaster epidemiology is the study of the effects disasters and disaster-related environments have on our health. To determine the most effective ways to minimize disaster-related illnesses, injuries, deaths and health risks, public health epidemiologists combine their understanding of the causes, spread and prevention of disease and infection with specialized techniques for collecting and analyzing population-based public health data. An accurate assessment of health and environmental conditions in disaster zones and shelters helps with emergency planning, prevention and response.

In a disaster setting, public health surveillance is conducted in hospital emergency departments, evacuation centers, special needs shelters, field hospitals and sometimes from surveys of households in affected communities to:

  • Measure the post-disaster health status and basic needs of the affected community;
  • Quickly and effectively deploy response assets and medical care;
  • Identify the disaster-related public health outcomes and trends, such as:
    • single high-priority disease cases and outbreaks
    • clusters of injuries and poisonings
    • behavioral health outcomes and trends
    • chronic disease exacerbation and healthcare needs
  • Prevent additional casualties during response and recovery;
  • Assess levels of healthcare use in the affected communities;
  • Evaluate communicable disease and infection control and prevention efforts;
  • Monitor the safety of relief and recovery workers;
  • Monitor the health conditions in shelters and evacuation centers.

These same surveillance and community health assessment methods can be used in non-emergencies to create a baseline understanding of a community's health status, including vulnerable populations, and assist with response planning and strategy development.

Since 2004, North Carolina's disaster epidemiology program has advanced Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) tools developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct community-based surveys. A combination of standardized paper forms and state-of-the-art technologies are used to collect data in the field and share information quickly with a range of public health partners. CASPER methods are also used for routine community health assessments and during research studies.

The PHP&R Branch provides disaster epidemiology consultation, technical assistance and training to the state's public health agencies and largest hospital systems to ensure preparedness and response capabilities that meet community needs, national standards, and state health department accreditation requirements.

For questions regarding public health surveillance in the disaster setting:

Aaron Fleischauer, PhD, MPH

Lana Deyneka, MD

Mina Shehee, PhD

North Carolina Division of Public Health
Raleigh, NC 27603

For Additional Information