In 1955, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention responded to an outbreak of 250 new cases of polio -- even though Dr. Jonas Salk had developed a vaccine for the disease three years earlier.
The CDC dispatched its Epidemic Intelligence Service, members of the centers' postdoctoral program of public health specialists who train to investigate public health threats.
They're the CDC's "Disease Detectives" and the agency has trained some 3,600 of them since its inception.
EIS investigators traced the inexplicable new cases of polio to a California-based vaccine company, Cutter Laboratories. In what has become known as the "Cutter Incident," CDC disease detectives were able to determine that the lab had accidentally produced 120,000 doses of vaccine with a live polio virus, instead of an inactive one.
Fifty-six children were paralyzed by the mix-up, and five others died. Beyond those who'd taken the live-virus vaccine, the community effect led to 113 more being paralyzed and five other children dying. The rest developed an abortive form of the disease that went away in days.
Without the work of the CDC's germ gumshoes, Cutter Laboratories might have infected thousands more, resulting in a devastating community effect. But polio vaccinations continued safely later that year, and the disease was eliminated in the U.S. by 1979.
As we are all discovering with the COVID-19 outbreak, the best defense against an outbreak is stopping its spread. The CDC is just far less passive and much more well-informed than the rest of us.
When an outbreak threatens, the EIS investigates the disease, discovers its causes and implements control measures and preventative actions to try to keep it from getting out of control.
For 70 years, the EIS has been the first line of defense against diseases that threaten the United States at home and abroad. Its investigators were first dispatched during the Korean War in 1951 to determine whether communist forces were developing or using biological agents.
In 1976, a number of American Legion members who attended a convention at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia suddenly came down with a strange kind of pneumonia. Of the 2,000 who attended, 182 people were infected and 29 died. The CDC detectives determined the culprit to be a previously undiscovered bacteria that had spread through stagnant water in the building's cooling system.
This new form of pneumonia was identified, as was its mode of transmission. And it was treated. Researchers dubbed the new condition "Legionnaires' disease."
The CDC's investigators aren't just deployed domestically; they go around the world to war zones, famine areas and other hot spots to counter the effects of unsanitary conditions associated with those areas.
From the Asian influenza of the 1950s to smallpox eradication in Africa in the 1960s, the EIS was among the first to parse out the causes and solutions to some of the world's most intractable medical mysteries.
Lassa fever, Ebola, SARS and H1N1 have all been the subject of the Epidemic Intelligence Service's international investigations. It also published a paper on the occurrence of a particular form of pneumonia affecting otherwise healthy homosexual males in the 1980s -- the first major scientific paper on the emergence of HIV in the United States.
It doesn't have to be an exotic mystery, either. Even something as domestic as the link between Toxic shock syndrome and extended tampon use was parsed out by the agency.
In the case of COVID-19, disease detectives weren't able to get to the area where the virus originated, China's Hubei Province, for the simple reason that they weren't invited. Help can't come to the rescue if no one calls them.
But Epidemic Intelligence Service officers are working in South Korea and with state and local agencies to curb the spread of the virus.
Beyond coronavirus, EIS' 113 officers are working on other medical mysteries, including unusual meningitis outbreaks in Alabama prisons, botulism infections among wounded drug users in Los Angeles, and unexplained bleeding caused by smoking synthetic marijuana in Illinois.
Anyone who wants to be one of the (very) few elite disease detectives should check out the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service website for more information.
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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