The Development of Surveillance Systems

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Abstract

Surveillance systems in public health practice have increased in number and sophistication with advances in data collection, analysis, and communication. When the Communicable Disease Center (now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) was founded some 70 years ago, surveillance referred to the close observation of individuals with suspected smallpox, plague, or cholera. Alexander Langmuir, head of the Epidemiology Branch, redefined surveillance as the epidemiology-based critical factor in infectious disease control. I joined Langmuir as assistant chief in 1955 and was appointed chief of the Surveillance Section in 1961. In this paper, I describe Langmuir's redefinition of surveillance. Langmuir asserted that its proper use in public health meant the systematic reporting of infectious diseases, the analysis and epidemiologic interpretation of data, and both prompt and widespread dissemination of results. I outline the Communicable Disease Center's first surveillance systems for malaria, poliomyelitis, and influenza. I also discuss the role of surveillance in the global smallpox eradication program, emphasizing that the establishment of systematic reporting systems and prompt action based on results were critical factors of the program.

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