Outbreaks of unknown aetiology in complex settings pose challenges and there is little information about investigation methods. We reviewed investigations into such outbreaks to identify methods favouring or impeding identification of the cause.
We used two approaches: reviewing scientific literature and soliciting key informants. Case studies were developed through interviews with people involved and triangulated with documents available from the time of the investigation.
Ten outbreaks in African or Asian countries within the period 2007–2017 were selected. The cause was identified in seven, of which two had an unclear mode of transmission, and in three, neither origin nor transmission mode was identified. Four events were caused by infectious agents and three by chemical poisoning. Despite differences in the outbreaks, similar obstacles were noted: incomplete or delayed description of patients, comorbidities confounding clinical pictures and case definitions wrongly attributed. Repeated rounds of data collection and laboratory investigations were common and there was limited capacity to ship samples.
It was not possible to define activities that led to prompt identification of the cause in the case studies selected. Based on the observations, we conclude that basing case definitions on precise medical observations, implementing initial comprehensive data collection, including environmental, social and behavioural information; and involving local informants could save precious time and hasten implementation of control measures.