Legal Epidemiology at the CDC

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By Heather Bashaw, ’22

Until my interview with the Center for Disease Control (CDC)’s Public Health Law Program (PHLP), I had never heard the term “legal epidemiology” before. Legal “epi” was not something that had been discussed in my health law classes. At the University at Buffalo School of Law, we had discussed laws that impacted healthcare – Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) for example, and the policy developments that led to healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid. 

Coming from a health research background, I was familiar with the concept of epidemiology, but had not yet thought about how the law could be applied to it. I was intrigued, and when the CDC internship was explained to me, I knew I had found a new avenue to use my law degree that appealed to the reason why I came to law school in the first place – to improve policies that I thought were failing the patients and the programs with which I had been working. 

Legal epidemiology is “the study of law as a factor in the cause, distribution, and prevention of disease and injury.”[1] One example of how a legal epidemiology study is conducted involves first data collected on when a law is enacted or as it changes. Such longitudinal data can then be overlapped with the health outcomes being evaluated. The differences since the law has been enacted or changed can then be compared, and impacts of the law can be evaluated. Another type of study may compare states that have enacted a certain type of law to states that have not. This second type of study looks at just a snapshot in time and indicates whether a state has a law or not. Like in the first example, this data can be overlapped with the health outcome of interest, and the impact of the laws can be compared.

PHLP conducts legal epidemiological research and evaluates laws that impact public health. These can be laws ranging from emergency executive orders during a pandemic to regulations for motor vehicle safety. PHLP also develops law-related tools that can be used by the public health community in order to provide technical assistance to public health partners, and answering law-related questions they may have. The research PHLP performs is published in peer reviewed journals, on the CDC website, and in the Public Health Law News newsletter. The information is used by health departments, elected officials, attorneys, and others.

My fellowship at the PHLP has been varied and interesting. Projects I have been part of have included providing technical assistance to partnering agencies and other departments at the CDC. I am currently mid-internship, and I have completed two separate 50 state law evaluations on different communicable diseases and the related reporting requirements, reviewing each state’s regulation and statutes. I have also researched and reviewed case law on polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and exposure to these chemicals from either consumer products or occupational exposures. My personal interest in true crime has been satisfied while helping to develop a legal epidemiology study to evaluate laws related to medical legal death investigations. It has not only been interesting to learn about these different areas of public health law, but also to be a part of legal epidemiology studies in different stages of the process.  

Interning at the CDC had been my hope since the Fall semester of my 1L year. When I was offered the internship, I was thrilled! At the same time, I had concerns about how I would pay for living expenses over the summer. Due to the pandemic, the internship was remote, which did save me the expense of moving to Atlanta for twelve weeks while maintaining an apartment in Buffalo. However, my regular bills still remained. The generous donation made by Francis and Cindy Letro provided me with financial security while interning for PHLP this summer. The funding for the University at Buffalo Public Interest Fellowship that the Letros provided made it possible for me to explore the area of public health law in a way I would not have been able to at a law firm this summer. The PHLP program taught me not only about legal epidemiology, but introduced me to other roles attorneys serve in public health law as well. Although I have always felt that law school was the right choice, this internship solidified my desire to work in public interest and to have an impact on policy through research and law. PHLP has also introduced me to an amazing network of dedicated public health law advocates. I am incredibly thankful to Francis and Cindy Letro and the University at Buffalo School of Law Summer Public Interest Funding & Fellowship Program for making this opportunity possible. I will always be grateful to have had this experience. 

Name: Heather Bashaw, ’22

Name of Fellowship: University at Buffalo School of Law Public Interest Fellowship

Placement: Center for Disease Control (CDC)’s Public Health Law Program 

Location: Buffalo, NY (Remote)

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “The funding for the University at Buffalo Public Interest Fellowship that the Letros provided made it possible for me to explore the area of public health law in a way I would not have been able to at a law firm this summer. “

[1] Legal Epidemiology, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (May 12, 2021),