Inside the Outbreaks

Thanks in part to the Science Challenge 2011, several months ago I picked up Inside the Outbreaks by Mark Pendergrast.

It's about the CDC's elite team of medical detectives, and very

The book opens with a parable about two doctors, a clinician (who practices medicine) and an epidemiologist (who studies patterns of diseases).

The two were walking to the side of a lazy river, but as they approached noticed it was full of unconscious bodies. They pulled a few out but there were too many to keep up. The researcher decided to run upriver to the surprise of the other doctor.

"Where are you going?" He yells. "Help me save these people!" Without stopping, she yells back, "I'm going upstream to find out why they're falling in!" 
Inside the Outbreaks is a chain of hundreds of vignettes on myriad researchers and diseases. It begins in 1951 with Alexander Langmuir addressing how the Korean War spurred Korean hemorrhagic fever ("...spread by rodents, not Communists.") in American soldiers, which Langmuir said necessitated a medical response team at the Communicable Disease Center (now the Center for Disease Control and Prevention) in Atlanta.

Langmuir got the funding needed to begin the Epidemic Intelligence Service, or EIS, a two-year program which many young doctors took as a way of avoiding mandatory military service.

The book covers contaminated church picnics, malaria, and explains how the poor neighborhood of Chandler Branch, WV had a lower rate of polio infection than that of its upscale neighbors because:
"Cesspools dumped into" Chandler Branch's drinking supply, thus "most babies were immune to polio."
Other stories were of children eating lead paint chips & breathing in lead particles from smelting factories, clusters of suburban leukemia, hospital infections, aspirin makers in denial of  Reye's syndrome for decades, the fear of Ebola & swine flu, liquid diets that caused starvation, polluted water caused by PCB's, PVC's, DDT, and more.

Just when I thought I had enough bad news, then came relief with the eradication of polio in the U.S. and a race to end smallpox in the rest of the world - only to have the emergence of a brand new disease called AIDS (which was traced back to WWII. Who knew?!).

There's also bad decisions, the politics of abortion, batches of bad polio vaccine, unethical testing on Africans, African Americans, and the heinous Jim Crow treatment of the first black EIS officer Bernie Challenor in 1965 that led him to seek overseas assignments. (He would later become the dean of the Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.)

I've been hemming and hawing about grad school for several years now and I think public health might be the thing. It's a good combination of my top three favorite things: communications, health and education.

I'm glad I've always ignored advice like: "Focus on one thing." Out of all the problems around here that need fixin', good health is required before anything else can be done. I'll keep you posted...

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