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Epidemiologists in Action
on October 15, 2005
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.