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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. Its content is not nearly as hyperbolic as its title, and it provides a solid, though somewhat superficial, look into public health. Its strength lies in the anecdotal nature of each chapter -- the personalities of the EIS agents, the conditions they face, and, sometimes, the politics and fear that threaten to allow an infectious agent to take hold in the population.
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VINE VOICEon February 14, 2005
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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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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on December 22, 2004
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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on October 3, 2015
Most people don't have any idea what goes on when an epidemic breaks out, and even less of an idea of how -- and if -- the people who are supposed to be in charge when an epidemic does break out, are prepared and can get ready to deal with the whole thing. Those people -- the staff at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, a Federal agency -- first have to decide if there IS an epidemic happening -- based on practically nothing at first, like a few cases of something that might very well be the flu or just coincidence or hearsay or exaggeration. Right -- and then there's SARS, or for that matter AIDS, back in '81. You gotta hop right on it, like with SARS, and nip it sort of in the bud. I guess with AIDS we didn't exactly get it right, this nip it in the bud thing, but you get the idea. Actually, that was the chapter of Beating Back the Devil I liked the best, the lowkey story of the CDC guy who happened to be working in Los Angeles and put two and two together and more or less figured out the AIDS epidemic, and told everybody that something was definitely up. Maryn McKenna was a reporter in Atlanta where the CDC has its headquarters and labs, so she covered it by going over there a lot. My favorite chapter is about the polio vaccine disaster in Berkeley in the Fifties; obviously Ms McKenna wasn't covering that in real time, but it's a fascinating brief story and a story that everybody should be aware of, now that vaccines are so controversial --- again. I handed out four stars instead of five because while it's an excellent book and totally well written by a great author, it's just a little too detailed here and there; like, uneven -- because, I suspect, the chapters are actually articles from a newspaper and that happens. You know, if they just told you that --- that it's a compilation of Atlanta Journal-Constitution articles -- which maybe they did somewhere but I missed it --- then that would have taken care of that. So if you have read that here, right now, and you buy the book, you may have the full five star experience just because you now know that, and you will adjust your reading appropriately. Tell you one thing -- when you finish reading Beating BAck the Devil you wont' give it away or get rid of it, you'll put it on the library shelf, or maybe give it to your niece or nephew in medical school.
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on October 8, 2015
Excellent, little read review of the EIS and PHS. They still don't get the recognition they deserve and McKenna does a great job bringing some of the stories to light. Book portrays many different aspects of the EIS and their benefit to the public.
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on December 31, 2013
I was very pleased with this book. As is obvious from the title, the book is about the little known organization the EIS. The writing does an excellent job of presenting facts and history while also reading like a novel. The author does an excellent job detailing the history of the CDC and its role in public health in the United States. There are many different vignettes about different outbreaks and the professionals who work on them. These stories are extremely fascinating and read like a good true crime novel. If you are not in the medical field, certain parts might take some research to grasp. This is one of the best books I have read in this subject area. It keeps you entertained while divulging the requisite history of organizations and people.

Grade: A
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on September 25, 2015
Interesting history of the Epidemic Intelligence Service and its roles in disease discovery, treatment, and eradication across the world and in this country. Highly recommended; not "too" technical or basic.
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on October 5, 2012
If, like me, you enjoy learning about the various illnesses that attack and sometimes threaten the human race, then I would strongly recommend this book. In 13 chapters, it covers the initial discovery of many of the last centuries “disease detective“ stories, taking us into various corners of the world and introducing us to the men and women who are out there - often at the risk of their own lives - trying to find ways to beat back the bugs, germs and other nasties nature throws our way. The book drags occasionally but not enough to deter me from wanting to finish it, and I appreciate the new perspective its given me on some stories I only knew about through the news.
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on September 8, 2013
If you've ever had an interest in the CDC, Epidemiology or diseases in general, you might find this book fascinating... I know I did.
This book gives you a look into the little known world of the Centers for Disease Controls Epidemiological Intelligence Service where people who are in the 2 year fellowship are sent all around the country to investigate.
Each chapter is a look at a specific thing, be it their first meeting of the new class, a case of West Nile Virus (actually my favorite chapter) or what essentially was the discovery of AIDS.
I've always been interested in epidemiology and this book made that interest grow!
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