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Beating Back the Devil

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Beating Back the Devil
On the Front Lines With the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service. By Maryn McKenna. (Free Press: 2008. Pg. 320.) ISBN-10: 1439123101, ISBN-13: 978-1439123102

Reviewed by Auggie Moore - April 15, 2010

When a disease outbreak occurs, who comes to the rescue? The super-heroes of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that's who! In Beating Back the Devil, Maryn McKenna chronicles the nail-biting story of the men and women who comprise the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS). The EIS is an elite fraternity whose members are the front line forces that are sent out to identify and control an outbreak when the CDC is informed of a burgeoning epidemic. They are also the front line forces sent out to combat instances of suspected biological terrorism.

The EIS is comprised of medical professionals, from doctors and nurses to veterinarians, who sign on for two years of duty as disease investigators. With less than twenty-four hours notice, they can be sent anywhere in the world to investigate confirmed and suspected disease outbreaks. What they find can be as horrific and deadly as Ebola or as benign (comparatively speaking) as a Listeriosis outbreak. When they arrive on the scene, their job is to determine the cause of the offending illness, help treat the victims, and help control the spread of the disease, while also supplying support and direction to local medical officials.

McKenna's narrative is well-paced and gripping. She describes, in great detail, the true stories of these medical detectives, without bogging down the story with technical jargon. McKenna is a science writer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, so she has years of experience translating complex scientific principles into laymen's terms. As well, she has been covering the CDC for nearly ten years and she brings her years of experience and expertise to the writing of this book.

This book captures the adrenalin laden adventures of the EIS officers, and the horrific nature of the work that they are often requested to perform. The men and women of the EIS are trench workers. They go out in the field, they get their hands dirty, and they get to know some of the worlds most deadly diseases on a personal basis. This is not work for the faint of heart.

Much of the material in this book is presented in the form of personal narratives, where former EIS officers recount their own experiences. Other sections deal with instances where the EIS officers were the front line investigators in disease outbreaks such as the recent SARS epidemic, the first Ebola outbreak, the discovery of AIDS, various polio and smallpox outbreaks, as well as the post 9/11 anthrax letters. She also details instances where the EIS officers were sent to investigate acts of biological terrorism as well as general public health threats.

Beating Back the Devil is a richly detailed and spirited book that gives the reader an insiders look at the workings of the EIS, from how its members are recruited and trained, to the missions they have undertaken and the bureaucratic machinations that they often must suffer through. This book is particularly timely as fears about H5N1 Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) becoming epidemic in humans continue to increase, for you can be sure that the CDC's is keeping a close watch on the spread of the disease, and will be one of the first agencies to send teams to the site of the first human outbreak of the disease - should it occur. Beating Back the Devil makes for fascinating reading and should be required reading for anyone interested in disease prevention and control. Beating Back the Devil is real-life drama at its best!

Related Reviews:

Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, by Maryn McKenna.
Lurking in our homes, hospitals, schools, and farms is a terrifying pathogen that is evolving faster than the medical community can track it or drug developers can create antibiotics to quell it. That pathogen is MRSA—methicillin-resistant Staphyloccocus aureus — and this book tells the story of its shocking spread and the alarming danger it poses to us all.

Virus Ground Zero: Stalking the Killer Viruses with the Centers for Disease Control, by Ed Regis.
This book offers an intriguing look into the history and the modern workings of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It also offers a brief overview of basic immunology and virology. This overview enables the lay reader to readily grasp the nature of viruses, and to better understand the battle that the CDC wages in the fight to preserve the public's health.

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