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What is Health Surveillance?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 29 December 2018
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Health surveillance could refer to several different ways observation can take place over people or populations at greater risk for illness. Two of the most common types of this watchfulness refer to analyzing workers or to analyzing the public. These could also be called occupational or public health surveillance and they are methods of catching health problems in those at elevated risk for certain diseases.

Occupational health surveillance is typically an issue when people work around chemicals or in environments that may be associated with dangerous conditions. For instance, exposure to certain chemicals might cause different types of diseases and companies may undertake to test workers periodically to make certain exposure level remains low and that no workers are getting sick. Should they find higher than desired or risky levels of chemicals they can refer workers to doctors and perhaps move them to different types of work so the chemical exposure ends. A whole population of workers that shows elevated levels of chemical exposure could suggest the company needs to change its safety features to better protect its workers.

These periodic tests serve an important part of occupational health surveillance. They truly are surveying and watching out for workers. They can inform the company not only when an individual is ill and needs help, but also when the company’s safety standards are not high enough.

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Another form of this practice is public health surveillance, and this is typically practiced by public health agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the US or the World Health Organization (WHO). Such agencies use data on public health to determine populations at particular risk for diseases. Lots of different populations might be considered “at risk” and this could be determined by a specific location, by a gender, by age, or by ethnicity.

Just like a company might respond, a public health agency could offer periodic health screenings or testing to those who are at a higher risk. Unlike company offerings, these screenings are typically voluntary. This means the public health agency usually has a lower percentage of success in catching all problems.

To increase enthusiasm for testing, public health surveillance programs might run ads in a variety of media to encourage people to get a screening. Sometimes some disease risks may be watched without direct contact with people. Surveillance could also mean examining data on risk factors of given populations for certain diseases over time to determine if risk is increasing or decreasing. Part of this analysis could then lead to generation of materials for the public on how to protect the self against identified health risks, if increase is noted.

Essentially, surveillance is to watch over, and to hopefully catch things early, prevent them, or identify cause and eliminate it. Unfortunately, not all disease causes are easy to eliminate, and the next best hope may be to educate about any behavioral factors that could minimize risk. This was certainly the case in 2009 with the swine flu or H1N1 virus. Organizations like the WHO and CDC realized that full prevention was likely impossible as the virus spread, but by focusing on educating about vaccines, handwashing, and other disease prevention techniques, cases may have been sharply reduced in some areas.

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