• Journal Article

The role of public health surveillance: information for effective action in public health


Wetterhall, S., Pappaioanou, M., Thacker, S. B., Eaker, E., & Churchill, R. E. (1992). The role of public health surveillance: information for effective action in public health. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 41 Suppl, 207-218.


Public health surveillance can provide the quantitative information needed for setting priorities and establishing rational health policy. Although there are many examples of the effective use of such information, the full potential for surveillance has not yet been realized. To a large degree, failure to achieve this potential has resulted from limited perspectives regarding the role and conduct of surveillance. Both practitioners (those who conduct surveillance) and users (those who apply surveillance data in a real-world setting) have fallen victim to such myopia. Public health surveillance must be advocated as an essential part of the global health agenda if we are to achieve international goals for improving health status. As we improve our appreciation of the variety of uses for public health surveillance data, we need to understand more fully the determinants of the decision-making process. Effective dissemination of information and effective communication are as important as data collection and analysis. No longer do we have--or should we have--the luxury of collecting information for its own sake. The information collected must have a demonstrated utility. Developing and training personnel to have expertise in public health surveillance will necessarily incur opportunity costs. Bridging gaps in data methodology and coverage will force us to weigh alternatives and to compromise. We hope that the International Symposium on Public Health Surveillance will accomplish several goals. First, we wish to foster international understanding of the definition, role, and importance of surveillance in reducing morbidity and mortality, in improving quality of life, and in setting effective health priorities. Second, we hope that this symposium will serve as a springboard for identifying issues and topics that can be addressed in greater depth at future international meetings. Finally, we see the symposium as an essential step in developing a firm commitment on the part of countries, donor agencies, and multilateral organizations to develop the essential capacity for public health surveillance throughout the world. Each country should have the capacity to measure and monitor changes in health status, risk factors, and health-service access and utilization among its people. All countries should have the means to detect emerging health problems and implement measures for their control, to evaluate the impact of health policies and programs, and to communicate health information in a meaningful fashion to policymakers and the public. If we are successful in these endeavors, the long-term effects on the public's health will be well worth the struggle required to achieve them.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)