The recent outbreak of the Ebola virus has focused public opinion on the analytical methods used by institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to manage infectious diseases. In a recent opinion piece on CNN’s website, Sen. Rob Portman wrote that the CDC should get “proactive” about Ebola by switching from “passive” monitoring to “active” monitoring of the outbreak. The media’s attention on Ebola has highlighted the fact that epidemiologists can be limited not only by the data they capture, but also by the traditional methods of analysis available, especially when trying to function in real time.

Generally speaking there are two forms of data capture (i.e., surveillance) when studying the spread and prevalence of an infectious disease: active and passive tracking. Active tracking is where researchers “capture” observation subjects from the “wild” (in the US this might be from the shopping mall or a phone list) with targeted instruments in a timely fashion. With passive tracking, researchers must wait until someone chooses to report information (e.g., a patient chooses to go to the doctor), and therefore they’re potentially unable to influence what or when information is shared.

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