Defining Susceptibility for Microbial Risk Assessment: Results of a Workshop


* Address correspondence to Rebecca Parkin, MPH, PhD, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, School of Public Health and Health Services, The George Washington University Medical Center, 2100 M Street, N.W., Suite 203, Washington, DC 20052;


An interdisciplinary workshop was convened by the George Washington University in June 2001 to discuss how to incorporate new knowledge about susceptibility to microbial pathogens into risk assessment and management strategies. Experts from government, academic, and private sector organizations discussed definitions, methods, data needs, and issues related to susceptibility in microbial risk assessment. The participants agreed that modeling approaches need to account for the highly specific nature of host-pathogen relationships, and the wide variability of infectivity, immunity, disease transmission, and outcome rates within microbial species and strains. Concerns were raised about distinguishing between exposure and dose more clearly, interpreting experimental and outbreak data correctly, and using thresholds and possibly linearity at low doses. Recommendations were made to advance microbial risk assessment by defining specific terms and concepts more precisely, designing explicit conceptual frameworks to guide development of more complex models and data collection, addressing susceptibility in all steps of the model, measuring components of immunity to characterize susceptibility, reexamining underlying assumptions, applying default methods appropriately, obtaining more mechanistic data to improve default methods, and developing more biologically relevant and continuous risk estimators. The interrelated impacts of selecting specific subpopulations and health outcomes, and of increasing model complexity and data demands, were considered in the contexts of public policy goals and resources required. The participants stated that zero risk is unattainable, so targeted and effective risk reduction and communication strategies are essential not only to raise pubic awareness about water quality but also to protect the most susceptible members of the population.