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Following the detection of an infectious disease outbreak, rapid epidemiological assessment is critical for guiding an effective public health response. To understand the transmission dynamics and potential impact of an outbreak, several types of data are necessary. Here we build on experience gained in the West African Ebola epidemic and prior emerging infectious disease outbreaks to set out a checklist of data needed to: (1) quantify severity and transmissibility; (2) characterize heterogeneities in transmission and their determinants; and (3) assess the effectiveness of different interventions. We differentiate data needs into individual-level data (e.g. a detailed list of reported cases), exposure data (e.g. identifying where/how cases may have been infected) and population-level data (e.g. size/demographics of the population(s) affected and when/where interventions were implemented). A remarkable amount of individual-level and exposure data was collected during the West African Ebola epidemic, which allowed the assessment of (1) and (2). However, gaps in population-level data (particularly around which interventions were applied when and where) posed challenges to the assessment of (3). Here we highlight recurrent data issues, give practical suggestions for addressing these issues and discuss priorities for improvements in data collection in future outbreaks. This article is part of the themed issue ‘The 2013–2016 West African Ebola epidemic: data, decision-making and disease control’.

Original publication




Journal article


Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences


The Royal Society

Publication Date





20160371 - 20160371