Analyses of infectious disease patterns and drivers largely lack insights from social epidemiology: contemporary patterns and future opportunities

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Abstract

Background

Infectious disease epidemiologists have long recognised the importance of social variables as drivers of epidemics and disease risk, yet few apply analytic approaches from social epidemiology. We quantified and evaluated the extent to which recent infectious disease research is employing the perspectives and methods of social epidemiology by replicating the methodology used by Cohen et al in a 2007 study.

Methods

2 search strategies were used to identify and review articles published from 1 January 2005 to 31 December 2013. First, we performed a keyword search of ‘social epidemiology’ in the title/abstract/text of published studies identified in PubMed, PsychInfo and ISI Web of Science, and classified each study as pertaining to infectious, non-infectious or other outcomes. A second PubMed search identified articles that were cross-referenced under non-infectious or infectious, and search terms relating to social variables. The abstracts of all articles were read, classified and examined to identify patterns over time.

Results

Findings suggest that infectious disease research publications that explicitly or implicitly incorporate social epidemiological approaches have stagnated in recent years. While the number of publications that were explicitly self-classified as ‘social epidemiology’ has risen, the proportion that investigated infectious disease outcomes has declined. Furthermore, infectious diseases accounted for the smallest proportion of articles that were cross-referenced with Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) terms related to social factors, and most of these involved sexually transmitted diseases.

Conclusions

The current landscape of infectious disease epidemiology could benefit from new approaches to understanding how the social and biophysical environment sustains transmission and exacerbates disparities. The framework of social epidemiology provides infectious disease researchers with such a perspective and research opportunity.

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