Effectiveness of early warning systems in the detection of infectious diseases outbreaks: a systematic review

Rehab Meckawy, David Stuckler, Adityavarman Mehta, Tareq Al-Ahdal, Bradley N. Doebbeling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Background: Global pandemics have occurred with increasing frequency over the past decade reflecting the sub-optimum operationalization of surveillance systems handling human health data. Despite the wide array of current surveillance methods, their effectiveness varies with multiple factors. Here, we perform a systematic review of the effectiveness of alternative infectious diseases Early Warning Systems (EWSs) with a focus on the surveillance data collection methods, and taking into consideration feasibility in different settings. Methods: We searched PubMed and Scopus databases on 21 October 2022. Articles were included if they covered the implementation of an early warning system and evaluated infectious diseases outbreaks that had potential to become pandemics. Of 1669 studies screened, 68 were included in the final sample. We performed quality assessment using an adapted CASP Checklist. Results: Of the 68 articles included, 42 articles found EWSs successfully functioned independently as surveillance systems for pandemic-wide infectious diseases outbreaks, and 16 studies reported EWSs to have contributing surveillance features through complementary roles. Chief complaints from emergency departments’ data is an effective EWS but it requires standardized formats across hospitals. Centralized Public Health records-based EWSs facilitate information sharing; however, they rely on clinicians’ reporting of cases. Facilitated reporting by remote health settings and rapid alarm transmission are key advantages of Web-based EWSs. Pharmaceutical sales and laboratory results did not prove solo effectiveness. The EWS design combining surveillance data from both health records and staff was very successful. Also, daily surveillance data notification was the most successful and accepted enhancement strategy especially during mass gathering events. Eventually, in Low Middle Income Countries, working to improve and enhance existing systems was more critical than implementing new Syndromic Surveillance approaches. Conclusions: Our study was able to evaluate the effectiveness of Early Warning Systems in different contexts and resource settings based on the EWSs’ method of data collection. There is consistent evidence that EWSs compiling pre-diagnosis data are more proactive to detect outbreaks. However, the fact that Syndromic Surveillance Systems (SSS) are more proactive than diagnostic disease surveillance should not be taken as an effective clue for outbreaks detection.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2216
JournalBMC public health
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • Alert
  • Early warning system
  • Notification
  • Public health

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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