The Haunting World of the Disease Detectives

By David Burke

In 2002, a frightening and previously unknown respiratory disease named SARS emerged on the global stage. The excitement and terror of this outbreak drove me to study microbiology in graduate school. Indeed, medical microbiologists and infectious disease epidemiologists live for such moments.

Dr. Alexandra Levitt, who works for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), is one of these health scientists. In her debut book, Deadly Oubreaks, she tells the gripping story of seven ghastly diseases and the investigations that tracked them down.

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Essentially, epidemiologists are biodetectives. Nowhere is that point made clearer than in the story of a strange neurological disease outbreak among various workers in a hog slaughterhouse over the course of ten months in 2007. But, what was the common thread linking all of the cases?

By examining a map of worker stations in the slaughterhouse, epidemiologists determined that everyone who became ill was located in the vicinity of a brain processing machine. The one exception was a woman whose best friend worked at the brain harvesting station, and she would spend her breaks conversing with her friend near that station.

With this information in hand, the disease detectives were able to nail down the culprit: Aerosolized brain material, inhaled by workers, was triggering an autoimmune reaction.

Such stories leave the reader with the impression that epidemiologists aren’t unlike prosecuting attorneys. When the final piece of evidence falls into place, the epidemiologist points an accusing finger and exclaims, “HE is the killer!” – to shocked gasps from the gallery.

Dr. Levitt’s writing is most compelling when the personal stakes for the characters in her vignettes are high. One poignant story involved a medication error that led to a surge in deaths at a children’s hospital in Toronto. A 24-year-old nurse named Susan Nelles was initially suspected, but later exonerated by the ensuing epidemiological investigation.

One of Dr. Levitt’s motives for writing the book was to shine a light on the unsung heroes of microbiology and epidemiology. Many of these devoted public servants risk their lives in defense of public health. They are the “front line” against infectious disease – similar to soldiers heading into battle.

But it’s not just their physical wellbeing that these brave souls are willing to sacrifice. The day-to-day work of field epidemiology extracts an emotional toll because human lives hang in the balance. Though constantly cognizant of this reality, epidemiologists must try to block out human suffering from their conscious minds. Investigations must be led by data, not emotion. Dr. Levitt recalls the oft repeated quote attributed to science writer Paul Brodeur: “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped away.”

In the foreword, Dr. Levitt says that she hopes her book will “help to attract the next generation of epidemiologists.” Her compelling narrative may do just that.

David Burke is a science writer and biology teacher. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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