Forensic public health: Epidemiological and microbiological investigations for biosecurity

Ali S. Khan, Philip S. Amara, Stephen A. Morse

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


Deliberate dissemination of a biological agent via several different routes presents the latest challenge to global public health security. Novel pathogens and transmission methods can easily be exploited to cause disease outbreaks. Advancements in molecular biology that make it possible to genetically modify, edit, or disrupt the genome of pathogens increase the disease risk of an accidental or intentional release of pathogens with pandemic potential. The occurrence of a disease at more than an endemic level may stimulate an investigation to determine the source of the disease, who has the disease, when it occurred, and how it spreads. When intentional release of pathogens is suspected, investigators have the additional task of attributing the outbreak not only to a pathogen but also to a human source. The deliberate nature of such dissemination may be obvious. However, some forms of bioterrorism may be more covert, requiring molecular methods to uncover. The field of microbial forensics emerged following the anthrax attack in the United States in 2001 to extend epidemiologic principles to aid in the investigation of bioterrorism incidents. Microbial forensics combines epidemiology with genomic and microbiologic methods, to identify, characterize, and ascribe the cause of an incident resulting from the intentional or unintentional release of a harmful pathogen. Unlike routine epidemiologic investigations, microbial forensic investigations are undertaken when there is a potential crime due to the release of a pathogen with disease-causing potential. The investigation is conducted to attribute cause to a source based on indisputable evidence and is used to support criminal charges against the perpetrator(s). However, because bioterrorism may be unannounced, the initial investigation will start the same as to any public health incident of concern. This chapter discusses how epidemiology integrated with laboratory science can be used to identify the source of diseases caused by microorganisms or toxins-especially for attribution purposes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationMicrobial Forensics
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9780128153796
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019


  • Biosecurity
  • Bioterrorism
  • Microbial forensics
  • Outbreak investigations
  • Public health
  • Strain typing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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