In the 1980s, scientists and clinicians were grappling with one of deadliest outbreaks in modern history. Large numbers of patients were dying from uncommon types of pneumonia, cancer, and infections of the lymph nodes. It seemed that some sort of immune system disorder was sweeping through the population. This was the official beginning of the AIDS pandemic, an outbreak that would go on to kill an estimated 39 million people worldwide.
The surge in AIDS cases in the early 1980s caused a great deal of fear and confusion in affected areas. People didn’t understand where the disease had come from or how it was transmitted, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS amongst the gay community and intravenous drug users led to the stigmatisation of HIV-positive individuals.
Epidemiologists were absolutely central to combatting misinformation during this period. Their work helped to lift the veil on HIV, allowing scientists, clinicians, and officials to help manage the condition. Literally translated from the Greek meaning ‘the study of people’, epidemiology is the practice of tracking the patterns, causes, and impact of diseases within populations. Epidemiologists are the detectives of science, and their work draws on many different areas, including medicine, public health, social sciences, statistics, and policy.
When an outbreak occurs, scientists look to study the pathogen and its structure and processes in intense detail. At Diamond, we are the ultimate reductionists, exploring the structure and characteristics of pathogens on an atomic and molecular level – this helps us to develop medicines to fight back.
Epidemiologists operate on the opposite end of the scale, looking at the impact of disease at the population level. Who is affected? What behaviour leads to transmission? What are the impacts of medical interventions? These are questions that epidemiologists help to answer, sometimes going beyond molecular cause and effect and exploring social issues like poverty and cultural practices to help get a bigger picture of healthcare issues.