Ineffective responses to unlikely outbreaks: Hypothesis building in newly-emerging infectious disease outbreaks

Published on 23 November 2023


Over the last 30 years, there has been significant investment in research and infrastructure aimed at mitigating the threat of newly emerging infectious diseases (NEID). Core epidemiological processes, such as outbreak investigations, however, have received little attention and have proceeded largely unchecked and unimproved. Using ethnographic material from an investigation into a cryptic encephalitis outbreak in the Brong-Ahafo Region of Ghana in 2010–2013, in this paper we trace processes of hypothesis building and their relationship to the organizational structures of the response. We demonstrate how commonly recurring features of NEID investigations produce selective pressures in hypothesis building that favor iterations of pre-existing “exciting” hypotheses and inhibit the pursuit of alternative hypotheses, regardless of relative likelihood. These findings contribute to the growing anthropological and science and technology studies (STS) literature on the epistemic communities that coalesce around suspected NEID outbreaks and highlight an urgent need for greater scrutiny of core epidemiological processes.

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