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

4.5 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0743251327
ISBN-10: 0743251326
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Among candidates for world's worst job, disease detective ranks pretty high. In Beating Back the Devil, Maryn McKenna examines the everyday fascinations and horrors faced by the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service. On a few hours' notice, these physicians are ready to travel anywhere in the world to track down new medical threats. McKenna writes about the group's response to such frightening incidents as the first outbreaks of Ebola and SARS. In matter-of-fact, first-person narratives, EIS doctors tell how they deal with crises brought on not only by biological threats, but by public health mismanagement, terrorism, and war. One doctor describes trying to save children while working in conflict-torn Zaire:
"We would go into a center and find kids lying on the floor, severely dehydrated, with a clogged IV," he said. "Then we would go outside and find the relief workers building a stone fireplace.... And we'd have to say, Hot meals would be great, but in a few days you're not going to have any living kids to cook meals for.... Take this oral rehydration solution and sit by this child and spoon it into his mouth.... Don't do anything else, or this child is going to be dead."
McKenna's research is painstakingly meticulous, and the doctors she profiles come across as brave firefighters of microbiological conflagrations. Not since Sherwin Nuland has an author so effectively revealed the dramatic side of medicine. --Therese Littleton

From 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 readers 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.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition edition (August 31, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743251326
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743251327
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #242,660 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Debbie Lee Wesselmann TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 15, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This fascinating book explores the work of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, a division of the Center for Disease Control. This group of elite health care workers trained in early disease detection and containment travel throughout the United States and the world to hot spots, with the goal of preventing deaths and widespread infection. Author Maryn McKenna, after introducing the history and structure of the EIS, launches into specific cases of disease detection, with chapters dedicated to malaria, cholera, AIDS, small pox, SARS, anthrax, TB, and others. Some chapters are devoted to outbreaks of well-known diseases, but the most intriguing are those focusing on the series of coincidences, connections, and insight that led to the discovery of new public health crises such as AIDS and SARS.

McKenna begins her book with the first day of training for the EIS class of 2002 and follows many of them through their two years of service, but she does not limit her narrative to the stories of these health care workers. She reaches back in time to various outbreaks and interviews former EIS agents instrumental in detecting and controlling the spread of infection. While this book does not have the narrative drive and heart palpitating scenes of The Hot Zone, it is nonetheless a compelling portrait of disease. The chapter on SARS in particular illustrates the danger that these health care professionals face. Written for the lay person, this book never gets technical and so might disappoint those who want in-depth analysis instead of detective work.

For those with a general interest in epidemiology, Beating Back the Devil offers insight into disease detection.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
One of the editorial reviews said this book was riveting. There is no doubt that the book is great reading into the EIS, a part of the Center for Disease Control in the United States. This book is especially mandatory reading for those in medicine who are even contemplating working for the CDC. It's good background into the possible postings that these young people are going to see, especially in the post-9/11 world. This will impact not just them, but their families also...these people are exposed as first responders to possible bioterrorism, and will need to get vaccines that the rest of us don't absolutely need. But the possible exposure to anthrax, small pox, and other infectious disease such as the hantavirus means that these vaccines are necessary.

This book just was not the riveting reading that I found in Laurie Garret's books, or the book on the 1918 influenza, or "The Hot Zone" by Preston. The book is well-written, and less melodramatic as some of these books are, and I would not be adverse to recommending this as reading for public health students. It is just not as interesting as these other books mentioned, probably because I read those books first...

Karen Sadler,

Science Education,

University of Pittsburgh
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Format: Hardcover
After reading The Coming Plague, I found myself fascinated by the people who do disease research. Beating Back The Devil by Maryn McKenna continues in that vein, and is a good read...

McKenna covers the history and activities of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), which is a branch of the CDC. These people, who are considered a branch of the military, sign up for a stint which involves intensive training, personal risk, and the knowledge that they may be sent anywhere in the world with a single phone call and no notice. It's the people in this group that were on the front lines of discovering and fighting Ebola, AIDS, and hantavirus. The author generally follows a specific group of EIS personnel through their adventures (but not exclusively), so you get to know and understand the personal costs of this type of work. It's truly amazing that we have people in this country that are willing to risk everything to keep us safe from things we can not see and may not be able to protect ourselves from. Since many of the disease episodes are relatively recent, it's easy to relate to what's going on in the story, and McKenna does a good job in bringing it all to life. This is probably one of the advantages of this book over The Coming Plague. Beating helps cover that ten year gap since Plague was published.

If the subject of disease detection and control is of interest to you, Beating Back The Devil is a must-read...
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Format: Hardcover
This book was an interesting and thought provoking quick read. Readers who previously enjoyed books such as The Hot Zone should find this particularly appealing. The book alternates between descriptions of battling real epidemics and describing the people who do this battle. The book leaves the reader feeling grateful to those who do this challenging, tedious, and dangerous work...and also frightened to learn the "real deal" on how epidemics spread. I found the chapter on vaccines to be particularly interesting, and I appreciated the global view of disease, which allows the reader a glimpse into the vast differences in healthcare between the developed and less-developed parts of the world.
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