Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service



They always keep a bag packed. They seldom have more than twenty-four hours' notice before they are dispatched. The phone calls that tell them to head to the airport, sometimes in the middle of the night, may give them no more information than the country they are traveling to and the epidemic they will tackle when they get there.

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They always keep a bag packed. They seldom have more than twenty-four hours' notice before they are dispatched. The phone calls that tell them to head to the airport, sometimes in the middle of the night, may give them no more information than the country they are traveling to and the epidemic they will tackle when they get there.

The universal human instinct is to run from an outbreak of disease. These doctors run toward it.

They are the disease detective corps of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the federal agency that tracks and tries to prevent disease outbreaks and bioterrorist attacks around the world. They are formally called the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) — a group founded more than fifty years ago out of fear that the Korean War might bring the use of biological weapons — and, like intelligence operatives in the traditional sense, they perform their work largely in anonymity. They are not household names, but over the years they were first to confront the outbreaks that became known as hantavirus, Ebola virus, and AIDS. Now they hunt down the deadly threats that dominate our headlines: West Nile virus, anthrax, and SARS.

In this riveting narrative, Maryn McKenna — the only journalist ever given full access to the EIS in its fifty-three-year history — follows the first class of disease detectives to come to the CDC after September 11, the first to confront not just naturally occurring outbreaks but the man-made threat of bioterrorism. They are talented researchers — many with young families — who trade two years of low pay and extremely long hours for the chance to be part of the group that has helped eradicate smallpox, push back polio, and solve the first major outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease, toxic shock syndrome, and E. coli O157.

Urgent, exhilarating, and compelling, Beating Back the Devil goes with the EIS as they try to stop epidemics — before the epidemics stop us.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Epidemic Intelligence Service: The name could have been pilfered from a science fiction novel, but the EIS is as real as a pulse, a heartbeat, or an anthrax attack. Members of the detective corps of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are the special forces in the war against disease. Traveling to any part of the world with only a few hours notice, they tackle new strains of AIDS, Ebola, hantavirus, SARS, and bioterror weapons. Beating Back the Devil tells the story of sleuths who are often just one breath away from death.
From the Publisher
"Ellen Archer coolly delivers the story of the CDC's inception and its battles with polio, smallpox, AIDS, anthrax, and SARS, along with other terrifying diseases and the organisms that cause them. BEATING BACK THE DEVIL is real-life drama with real high stakes." —-AudioFile
Publishers Weekly
Founded in 1951 because of a mistaken concern that troops in Korea had been exposed to biological weapons, the Epidemic Intelligence Service, or EIS, is the rapid-response force of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Young, highly trained, and fiercely committed," EIS health professionals, including doctors, dentists, nurses and veterinarians, respond rapidly and travel to any area of the world to examine possible threats to public health. Given unique access to the EIS, McKenna presents 11 case studies of epidemics, environmental threats and acts of terrorism EIS has dealt with. McKenna puts us on the scene with doctors discovering the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic in 1980. She tells of an EIS team that in 1994 traveled to Zaire to assist in a cholera epidemic sparked by a genocidal war. After 9/11, EIS investigated the anthrax attacks that were spread through the mails. McKenna, a senior medical writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, provides an inside look at how EIS workers are trained. Recruits, selected through a competitive process, are given refresher courses in epidemiology, statistical analysis and interviewing techniques before beginning a two-year on-the-job training. McKenna's personal portraits of these dedicated health professionals illuminate the bravery as well as the anxiety that accompany this demanding work. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This book celebrates a group of unsung heroes, the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Since its inception in 1951, the EIS has sent officers around the world to investigate outbreaks of diseases from polio, smallpox, tuberculosis, SARS, and West Nile Virus to the bioterrorist anthrax attacks. EIS officers talented young physicians and scientists serve for two years; they are often posted to state public health departments but may be called into action at any moment. McKenna, a medical journalist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, intersperses chapters on specific disease outbreaks with personal stories of the EIS class of 2002, which makes for a slightly choppy read. However, the book imparts both the thrill and the tedium of being a disease detective. Readers who enjoyed Richard Preston's The Hot Zone and Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague should appreciate this title, which will also interest students in medicine, nursing, and public health. For larger public libraries and academic institutions with health sciences programs. Eris Weaver, Redwood Health Lib., Petaluma, CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400101405
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/15/2004
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 9 CDs, 11 hours
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 5.56 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

She is an award-winning science and medical writer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she has covered the CDC since 1997...

Ellen Archer is an acclaimed audiobook narrator and winner of a coveted Audie Award for For the Love of a Dog (available from Tantor).

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Read an Excerpt

Beating Back the Devil

On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service
By Maryn McKenna

Free Press

Copyright © 2004 Maryn McKenna
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-5132-6


July 2002,

Anniston, Alabama

The cinder block hallway is wide, white, and chilly. Brilliant fluorescent light glares off the slick paint. The light makes pools of brightness on the linoleum, leaving the ends of the corridor in shadow.

In one of the pools of brightness, a body is lying on a gurney.

A crew of health care workers huddles around it. They are shrouded in baggy white coveralls, thick boots, and black rubber gauntlets that reach their elbows. Heavy military respirators mask their faces, tugging down their heads and cutting off their peripheral vision. Their instructor stands at the side of the stretcher; when his voice booms out, the faceplates swivel in his direction like a nervous flock of periscopes.

"Someone has placed a device in a trash container at the food court in the mall," he says. "It contained Sarin gas. Several people have collapsed. This is one of them."

The Tyvek suits crinkle as the workers crowd the gurney. They are anxious in the unfamiliar surroundings, nervous about the task in front of them, eager to get started treating their patient. Their instructor knows this. He knows they have been taught to move quickly and decisively. He also knows, as they will learn, how much danger their rapid reflexes could put them in now.

"Your training is to get the patient to treatment as soon as possible," he says. "But you need to cut his clothes off first. You need to wipe him down with decontaminant. If you rush into the emergency room with this person, you may create a bigger problem than you already have. People in that emergency room may die because of you."

Clutching sponges, four of the health workers crouch awkwardly by the stretcher, taking care not to kneel and contaminate the fragile suits that protect them from poison-gas residue. One eases off the patient's shoes. Two cut carefully through his clothing with scissors, pulling the cloth away from his skin. The fourth, at the head of the stretcher, monitors the victim's vital signs.

Or would, if he had any. The victim's chest is not rising. The fingers seeking a pulse make no dent on his plastic skin. The body on the gurney is a training dummy, a jointed plastic mannequin wearing thrift-shop clothes and a synthetic wig that the sponges have knocked askew.

It looks like a joke figure, something to stuff in a porch rocking chair on Halloween, but there is nothing light-hearted about this training session. Instead, it is tense and solemn. It represents the first time in more than fifty years that the U.S. government has prepared its disease detectives for an ugly possibility: that the health problems they will be chasing may be deliberately caused.

The members of the group around the gurney are the newest enrollees in the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC is the Pentagon of public health in America, the place where threats are identified and control strategies are launched. The EIS is its Special Forces.

The members of the disease detective corps have always been young, highly trained, and fiercely committed. They expect to be summoned in the middle of the night for a crisis halfway across the country, or the world. But they have never before been trained to be the first responders to radioactive, chemical, and biological attacks.

The EIS was founded in 1951 because health authorities feared Korean War troops had been exposed to biological weapons. The fear was groundless, then. Fifty-one years later, bioweapons have not yet been used against U.S. troops - but they have been against U.S. civilians. It is reasonable to believe they will be used again.

It is ten months since two hijacked planes brought down New York City's World Trade Center, and nine months since a set of mailed envelopes, loaded with finely milled anthrax, accomplished the first fatal bioterrorist attack in American history on American soil. The eighty-nine doctors, Ph.D.s, veterinarians, and nurses in this EIS class applied for their jobs before the World Trade Center was attacked. They were offered their positions, and accepted them, months afterward - with the understanding that preparing for the possibility of terrorism would be part of the job from now on.

"We can't prevent a terrorist attack," the instructor says. "But we can be better prepared. If you respond properly, you may save a lot of lives, including your own."

But it was one thing to agree to be prepared and another to experience it. It is difficult to move in the billowy suits, and impossible to laugh or catch someone else's eye through the tunnel vision of the faceplate. The loose boots make it hard to walk and impossible to run, even with a drill instructor shouting at their shoulder blades. One of the doctors is clenching his fist to control his anxiety; another is breathing deeply to keep her rising claustrophobia under control.

They have been on the job for three weeks.

Over the instructor's shoulder, a window set into a door offers a glimpse of a disaster scene: a restaurant patio strewn with bodies. Through a second door, there is a second disaster scene: a subway platform, eerily deserted. Both rooms are stage sets, meant to provide practice in the possible varieties of disaster. They serve as a warning: The EIS officers must be prepared to combat terrorism, but they cannot predict where or how it will appear.

Behind this training session lies an assumption: There will be another terrorist attack, of some kind, and the EIS will be the ones who respond to it. They will have to calm panicked citizens, rally dazed medical personnel, and organize care of the victims. They will be the most knowledgeable people on the scene of a disaster, and they will have to take charge for the first few hours - or, if things go very badly, for the first few days.

Until that happens, they will take up the daily jobs of disease detectives, racing to health problems that range from small clusters of foodborne illness to nationwide outbreaks of newly discovered pathogens. But first they will spend a week in this disused Army hospital, learning to rush toward threats that any sensible human would run from.

"I cannot emphasize this enough: You are a target, a target, a target," their trainer tells them. "If they take you out, there will be no one to hold the line on whatever epidemic they have caused."


Excerpted from Beating Back the Devil by Maryn McKenna Copyright © 2004 by Maryn McKenna. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Prologue : July 2002, Anniston, Alabama 1
1 Training : July 2002, Atlanta 5
2 Polio : 1955, Atlanta 27
3 West Nile Virus : August-October 2002, Atlanta 41
4 Smallpox : 1972, Bangladesh 61
5 Listeriosis : August-November 2002, Philadelphia 77
6 AIDS : 1981, Los Angeles 99
7 Uniformity : November-December 2002, Atlanta 113
8 War : 1994, Zaire 133
9 Malaria : March 2003, Malawi 153
10 Tuberculosis : 1999-2000, Baltimore and New York 173
11 Drug-resistant staphylococcus : March-June 2003, Los Angeles 189
12 Terrorism : 2001, New York City and Washington, D.C. 207
13 SARS : March-July 2003, Hanoi and Bangkok 231
Epilogue : July-September 2003 261
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