New book: Disease detectives may have saved your life

Vermont writer Mark Pendergrast’s new book, Inside the Outbreaks, “is a history of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, the front-line disease detectives of the CDC.  It covers an amazing array of medical mysteries all over the world, from an insider’s perspective.”  Find more, as well as some rave reviews, on his page.

Since its founding in 1951 by Alexander Langmuir as a service/training program, the Epidemic Intelligence Service, working out of the CDC· in Atlanta, Georgia, has sent out over 3,000 officers to combat every imaginable human (and sometimes animal) ailment. 

These young people—doctors, veterinarians, dentists, statisticians, nurses, microbiologists, academic epidemiologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and now even lawyers — call themselves “shoe-leather epidemiologists.” EIS officers have ventured over the globe in search of diseases, sometimes in airplanes, in Jeeps, on bicycles, aboard fragile boats, on dogsleds, atop elephants and camels. 

EIS officers generally have performed their tasks without fanfare or notice.  They have saved uncountable lives, preventing uncontrolled spread of disease and diagnosing problems before they escalated.  They even may have saved your life, though you were probably unaware of it…

The overarching take-home lesson from this history, though, is that dollars spent on public health surveillance and prevention programs are cost-effective.  In the United States, we tend to react to health problems and seek heroic individual clinical resolutions, spending most of our health budget on extreme measures.  Because public health efforts like those of the EIS are largely invisible – few people know they are being protected – they are both undervalued and underfunded, despite their efficiency.


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