The role of epidemiology in disaster response policy development

Lorna E. Thorpe, Shervin Assari, Stephen Deppen, Sherry Glied, Nicole Lurie, Matthew P. Mauer, Vickie M. Mays, Edward Trapido

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: Disasters expose the general population and responders to a range of potential contaminants and stressors which may harm physical and mental health. This article addresses the role of epidemiology in informing policies after a disaster to mitigate ongoing exposures, provide care and compensation, and improve preparedness for future disasters. Methods: The World Trade Center disaster response is used as a case study. We examine how epidemiologic evidence was used to shape postdisaster policy and identify important gaps in early research. Results: In the wake of World Trade Center attacks, epidemiologic research played a key role in identifying and characterizing affected populations, assessing environmental exposures, quantifying physical and mental health impacts, and producing evidence to ascribe causation. However, most studies suffered from methodological challenges, including delays, selection biases, poor exposure measurement, and nonstandardized outcomes. Gaps included measuring unmet health needs and financing coverage, as well as coordination across longitudinal cohorts of studies for rare conditions with long latency, such as cancer. Conclusions: Epidemiologists can increase their impact on evidence-based policymaking by ensuring core mechanisms are in place before a disaster to mount monitoring of responders and other affected populations, improve early exposure assessment efforts, identify critical gaps in scientific knowledge, and coordinate communication of scientific findings to policymakers and the public.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)377-386
Number of pages10
JournalAnnals of Epidemiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2015


  • Case study
  • Disaster epidemiology
  • Policy
  • World Trade Center

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology


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