Book Review: Inside the Outbreaks

In 1951, the Epidemic Intelligence Service was organized under Dr. Alexander Langmuir as a part of the Centers for Disease Control. At that time, there was already concern about biological warfare in the wake of the developing Cold War and conflict in Korea. EIS fellows (who were literally “fellows” — no women — at that time) served for 2-year terms as investigators into disease outbreaks both domestic and foreign. Their job was to find and identify diseases, determine their sources, and if possible, help the suffering population. Diseases addressed by the EIS included polio, smallpox, malaria, cholera, measles, salmonella, typhoid, diphtheria, tetanus, influenza, and Legionnare’s disease. Part of their work included helping the World Health Organization eradicate smallpox. Later, they were instrumental in discovering the spread of HIV and identifying lifestyle factors in chronic  diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

I definitely enjoyed reading this book, especially the parts about mystery diseases, such as Legionnaire’s, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, Lassa fever, and Ebola. My only complaint was that the author chose to quickly cover a large number of outbreaks rather than focusing on a few. I felt that names and places were being thrown at me faster than I could process them. If Pendergrast had selected, say, one outbreak per year and gone into greater detail about it, I would have felt more enlightened about the operation of EIS. I read another book, called Deadly Outbreaks by Alexandra Levitt, awhile back which described seven specific cases which were solved by epidemiologists, one of which was the hantavirus pulmonary syndrome case, another the Legionnaire’s outbreak. In that case, I would have liked more than seven (perhaps I am never satisfied), but I did enjoy the detail. A book in between these two would be nice. Any suggestions?

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