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Med Mal Infect. 2007 Feb;37(2):77-94. Epub 2006 Dec 29.

[Principles of an outbreak investigation in public health practice].

[Article in French]

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Département des Maladies Infectieuses, Institut de Veille Sanitaire, 12, rue du Val-d'Osne, Saint-Maurice, France.


An outbreak (or epidemic) is a higher number of cases of a given disease in a given population and time interval. A timely investigation has for aim to identify the source and vehicle of the outbreak and provides unique opportunities to better understand its occurrence and the role of contributing risk factors to implement the most appropriate measures to control it and prevent further recurrences. The investigation of an outbreak is based on a multidisciplinary approach (clinical, epidemiological, environmental, and microbiological) with a descriptive and analytical (hypothesis testing) phase. In this article, we describe the methodological approach of a field outbreak investigation illustrated by examples taken from our experience. The investigation includes the following steps: establishing the existence of the outbreak; defining the disease; finding cases; describing cases by time, place, and person characteristics; establishing a hypothesis related to the mode of occurrence; testing the hypotheses; conducting an environmental investigation; conducting a microbiological investigation; controlling the outbreak, preventing further occurrences, and writing an investigation report to share experience with the public health and scientific community. The investigation of an outbreak is an evolving process: information gathered or conclusions made at a given stage must be fully used for following steps. The social, institutional, and political background associated with outbreaks usually makes their investigation complex and should be taken into account. The earlier the outbreak is detected and investigated in close relation with public health authorities, the greater will be the potential preventive impact of control measures.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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