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Computer screen displaying a map of north and south America with red dots indicating Omicron surveillance data.

National and international responses to recent pandemics have exposed those traditionally far from the practice of public health to the presence of disease surveillance. The result has been increased scrutiny from members of government and the general public alike, with some espousing surveillance as a possible solution to future crises and others decrying the practice as an utter violation of privacy and a gateway to decreased personal liberty. The future of disease surveillance will depend heavily on discussions, debates, and the pressures of powerful institutions and individuals. Though it focuses on the past, historical inquiry on the history of disease surveillance will help those in the present better understand the possible effects new surveillance programs may have. It will therefore equip modern professionals with knowledge that will increase the capacity for ethical decision making. Historical research has the possibility to contribute to a new understanding of disease surveillance as practitioners manage increased political and societal weight.

Despite modern attention, disease surveillance is not a new phenomenon. The precise origin, however, is highly debated. Many historians of medicine make the argument that disease surveillance in one form or another has been present in outbreaks throughout history. Many practitioners of public and global health, however, make the argument that there is a distinction between early forms of disease surveillance and a new era of disease surveillance ushered in by individuals and public health institutions such Alexander Langmuir at the CDC and officials at the WHO in the middle of the twentieth century. This modern form of disease surveillance was meant to be devoid of political and social influence, a collection of information and data to be later shared with researchers and decision makers. The advent of modern disease surveillance is under researched by historians and should be explored further, it is the backdrop for modern discussions of disease surveillance and why public health professionals perceive their profession the way they do.

With a stronger understanding of the history of disease surveillance, from its early days to the expansion of a modern practice, this research project seeks to present a history of disease surveillance that can contribute to modern discussions and help shape ethical decision making in the future. It also seeks to engage other disciplines in the conversation. The goals for the research include a scholarly article on the history of disease surveillance, another article on what the history of disease surveillance can contribute to modern discussions and ethics, and a workshop bringing together researchers from multiple fields to discuss how various disciplines explore the intersection of disease surveillance and humanity to improve the capacity for ethical decision making.

Research questions

What is the history of disease surveillance? Can disease surveillance be separate from the politics of public health? What can the history of disease surveillance teach us about the modern period? How can historical inquiry on this topic inform modern discussions in bioethics specifically?

Project team

  • Ethan Friederich, Postdoctoral Researcher in Bioethics and Global History at the Ethox Centre, University of Oxford
  • Graham Mooney, Associate Professor in the History of Medicine and Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University

Photo Credit: Martin Sanchez on Unsplash