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To tailor a surveillance system to its objectives and to evaluate its fitness for purpose, an accurate description of its structural elements is essential. Existing recommendations for setting up a system seldom offer a comprehensive list of all surveillance elements to be considered. Moreover, there is sometimes confusion in the way terms describing these elements are interpreted. The objective of this paper is to propose a comprehensive set of surveillance system descriptors that can delineate the important elements and clarify the meaning of the terms used. We identified 20 descriptors that we classified in five categories: (i) surveillance scheme; (ii) population and cases; (iii) supplementary data; (iv) information flow; and (v) period of time. We tried to make the definitions of these descriptors as clear and simple as possible to avoid confusion or misinterpretation of the terms used. The relative importance of each element may vary depending on the objectives of the surveillance scheme. Surveillance descriptors should be reviewed periodically to document changes and to assess if the system continues to be fit for purpose. Together with the minimum requirements for variables and the planned outputs for disseminating the data, the surveillance descriptors can be used to define surveillance standards.


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