Health officials prioritize prevention and control efforts by using data from outbreaks. First, they identify the most at-risk populations, which include those who work in healthcare facilities and pregnant women. Then, they assess their ability to quickly and easily identify and isolate infected people during a pandemic — this includes if they have the right equipment, training, and staff. Finally, they look at how well-equipped their healthcare system is to handle infectious diseases. This includes hospital preparedness, their ability to track outbreaks, and how many cases they see each year.
One of the most important steps in controlling an outbreak is identifying its cause. For example, during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, public health officials were able to identify that fruit bats were the main source of transmission because patients frequently ate bats. This information helped guide prevention efforts in areas where people hunted for food using nets or spears that might come into contact with fruit bats. If this step had not been identified early on, it would have significantly affected vaccine development and other infection control efforts.
Outbreaks are usually localized events, so once the cause has been determined, action can be taken at a local level to prevent further spread within populations at risk. This can involve advising people on how to reduce their risk of infection, such as the current recommendations to avoid travel to areas affected by the Zika virus. These actions are usually effective because once an outbreak has begun there is often very little room for it to grow before it peaks and subsides naturally.
However, when outbreaks do not peak or subside quickly they can lead to more global spread that requires international efforts for containment. For example, during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Nigeria was able to stop transmission within eight weeks; however, this was too short a duration for countries with much weaker infectious disease surveillance systems like Senegal and Mali who were only able to halt the spread after many months.
For outbreak detection activities like these, it is important for countries to have well-developed surveillance systems. For example, Nigeria's health system has a network of over 4500 sentinel sites which are clinic locations that help monitor infectious disease trends throughout the country. This helps public health officials quickly identify outbreaks and allows them to quickly respond when necessary.