Disease outbreak

In epidemiology, an outbreak is a sudden increase in occurrences of a disease in a particular time and place. It may affect a small and localized group or impact upon thousands of people across an entire continent. Four linked cases of a rare infectious disease may be sufficient to constitute an outbreak. Outbreaks include epidemics, which term is normally only used for infectious diseases, as well as diseases with an environmental origin, such as a water or foodborne disease. They may affect a region in a country or a group of countries. Pandemics are near-global disease outbreaks when multiple countries across the world are infected.


The terms "outbreak" and "epidemic" have often been used interchangeably. Researchers Manfred S. Green and colleagues propose that the latter term be restricted to larger events, pointing out that Chambers Concise Dictionary and Stedman's Medical Dictionary acknowledge this distinction.

Outbreak investigation

When investigating disease outbreaks, the epidemiology profession has developed a number of widely accepted steps. As described by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these include the following:
The order of the above steps and relative amount of effort and resources used in each varies from outbreak to outbreak. For example, prevention and control measures are usually implemented very early in the investigation, often before the causative agent is known. In many situations, promoting good hygiene and hand-washing is one of the first things recommended. Other interventions may be added as the investigation moves forward and more information is obtained. Waiting until the end of an investigation to implement prevention and control measures is a sure way to lose ones job. In outbreaks identified through notifiable disease surveillance, reports are often linked to laboratory results and verifying the diagnosis is straight forward. In outbreaks of unknown etiology, determining and verifying the diagnosis can be a significant part of the investigation with respect to time and resources. Several steps are usually going on at any point in time during the investigation. Steps may be repeated. For example, initial case definitions are often established to be intentionally broad but later refined as more is learned about the outbreak. The above list has 9 steps, others have more. Implementing active surveillance to identify additional cases is often added.

Outbreak debriefing and review has also been recognized as an additional final step and iterative process by the Public Health Agency of Canada.


There are several outbreak patterns, which can be useful in identifying the transmission method or source, and predicting the future rate of infection. Each has a distinctive epidemic curve, or histogram of case infections and deaths.
Outbreaks can also be:
Patterns of occurrence are:
Outbreak legislation is still in its infancy and not many countries have had a direct and complete set of the provisions.
However, some countries do manage the outbreaks using relevant acts, such as public health law.