Top 10 Epidemiology Stories for 2022

The year 2022 has been filled with big news stories in medicine and health. We continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, establishing new patterns for health, and experiencing other changes in the world of health science.

Key takeaways:
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    COVID-19 continued to dominate health news in 2022 and will likely still play a major role in health news for years to come.
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    Some of the top epidemiology stories for 2022 included shifts in information availability, highlighting the importance of quality information.
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    Outbreaks and outbreak management will always be a big part of epidemiology, but the cause of some outbreaks is not immediately clear.

Epidemiology is the study of the frequency and patterns of health and health-related parameters in a population and is at the core of some of the biggest health stories in 2022. Here are the top epidemiology news headlines from 2022 and a brief picture of what we may see on the horizon in 2023.

1. COVID-19: Shifting policies and priorities

As the COVID-19 Pandemic wore on throughout 2022, there was an increasingly apparent shift in pandemic-response policies globally. In particular, over the past year - and especially in the context of the Omicron variant - more countries have shifted from containment strategies to management strategies. This means that regional policies more often strive for living in a future with COVID-19, rather than eliminating the virus or “zero-COVID.” These policies aim to establish a life with COVID-19, focusing on protecting hospital capacity, reducing the severity of infections, and minimizing negative outcomes such as death.

2. Bivalent COVID-19 vaccines

In 2022, the available vaccines to combat COVID-19 were modified and updated to provide the best ongoing immune support for patients. This shift from a singular form of the vaccine to a bivalent vaccine that responds to the virus' changes, similar to the annual influenza vaccine, will provide more targeted immunity moving forward. Bivalent or updated vaccines are good news for the global population and the fight against COVID-19.

3. Health equity in context of COVID-19

Health equity is the goal to provide good and equal health to all people. Equity involves providing people with what they need to be healthy, even when it is different from what others need.

The increasingly available research on COVID-19 in 2022 demonstrated the ways that some population subgroups were more negatively impacted by the pandemic. Many social determinants of health, such as being a person of color, living in poverty, or employment in high-risk work, increased the risk of negative outcomes from COVID-19 infections. Rates of hospitalization, persistent symptoms (also known as long-COVID), and deaths were higher among some population groups.

4. Widespread Monkeypox outbreak

On July 23, 2022, the World Health Organization identified an outbreak of monkeypox in humans as a public health emergency of international concern. The ongoing monkeypox outbreak began to appear in May 2022 when cases of the Orthopox virus were appearing in many regions and countries that do not typically see the infection. When a public health emergency of international concern is declared, there is often increased coordination and availability of resources to combat the spread of infection. These resources include researchers, funding for therapeutics and vaccines, and more.

5. The ‘Triple-demic’

Globally, policy changes such as those outlined above, have shifted to allow for increased population movement, reduced mask requirements, and more individual responsibility for risk assessment. While these policies were driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, they effectively worked to reduce the spread of other respiratory illnesses, such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (commonly known as RSV). Therefore, as these policies are decreased or removed, the resurgence of other respiratory illnesses is occurring simultaneously. These illnesses spreading through the population at similar times pose a major threat to healthcare systems that have been stretched to the brink throughout the pandemic.

6. Ugandan Ebola virus outbreak

The World Health Organization declared an Ebola virus outbreak in Uganda on September 20, 2022. The outbreak was caused by the Sudan Ebola virus species. As of December 5, 2022, there have been 142 confirmed cases in nine districts, and 54 confirmed fatalities, as well as 22 fatalities amongst probable cases. Of the confirmed cases, 19 cases were amongst healthcare workers. This outbreak is ongoing.

7. The Infodemic: misinformation is readily available

With the internet, both good and bad, correct and incorrect information is at everyone’s fingertips. While this is not new, misinformation is one of the top epidemiology news stories of 2022 because of the impact it has had on pandemic management and other health issues. Shifting COVID-19 policies put the onus on the individual to assess their own infection risk, making misinformation increasingly dangerous in 2022.

8. Global mental health crisis

Physical health challenges and physical health restrictions brought on by the years of the COVID-19 pandemic response have exacerbated existing mental health challenges and triggered new mental health concerns. Isolation, grief, and loss can all be individual triggers for mental health challenges. The collective traumas and simultaneous grieving of communities and individuals around the world can lead to increased mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety. According to the World Health Organization, there has been a 25% increase in the proportion of individuals who experience depression and/or anxiety due to the pandemic.

9. Accessing health information

The pandemic has shifted healthcare in many obvious ways, such as stretching hospital capacity. There are also less obvious ways, such as individuals becoming more responsible than ever to manage their health. Not only is general health information available at a person’s fingertips in many cases, but so is their personal health information. Technology improvements throughout the pandemic have made it easier for patients to store their x-ray images, blood work results, and more on their handheld devices or phones.

10. Illnesses of known and unknown causes in children

In addition to some of the large-scale outbreaks that occurred in 2022, there have been many smaller or more unique outbreaks. For example, an outbreak of acute hepatitis of unknown cause - which results in inflammation of the liver and has primarily impacted children - began in early 2022, affecting several countries, including the United States. Also, an increase in invasive group A streptococcal infections (commonly known as iGAS) has been reported among children in several countries in Western Europe. An infection, with iGAS, is caused by a bacterial infection and can sometimes result in sepsis. Further, sewage wastewater samples have detected vaccine-derived poliovirus in many countries, including the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, and the United States. Poliomyelitis is a highly infectious viral disease that can cause paralysis and primarily infects children.

Looking forward to 2023

As the world continues to navigate the impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the emergency phase shifts to a transitional pandemic phase response. Global policies vary between regions but looking forward to 2023, we can expect to see continued policy shifts that emphasize longer-term management of COVID-19. These shifts will likely continue to underscore the importance of policies for living with COVID-19.

The year 2022 has been filled with health news, and epidemiology continues to be an important science that will help us navigate health into the future. Epidemiologists use statistical tools and complex research methods to understand the health of populations and population subgroups and the movement of diseases. Therefore, epidemiology provides essential tools for understanding the transition from COVID-19 as a health emergency to COVID-19 as part of our broader future. As we look ahead to 2023, watch to see where epidemiology is a part of some of the biggest health stories of the year.

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