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Beating Back the Devil

Beating Back the Devil


IN THE WAR AGAINST DISEASES, THEY ARE THE SPECIAL FORCES.

They always keep a bag packed. They seldom have more than twenty-four hours' notice before they are dispatched. The phone calls that tell them to head to the airport, sometimes in the middle of the night, may give them no more information than the country they are traveling to and the epidemic they will tackle when they get there.

The universal human instinct is to run from an outbreak of disease. These doctors run toward it.

They are the disease detective corps of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the federal agency that tracks and tries to prevent disease outbreaks and bioterrorist attacks around the world. They are formally called the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) -- a group founded more than fifty years ago out of fear that the Korean War might bring the use of biological weapons -- and, like intelligence operatives in the traditional sense, they perform their work largely in anonymity. They are not household names, but over the years they were first to confront the outbreaks that became known as hantavirus, Ebola virus, and AIDS. Now they hunt down the deadly threats that dominate our headlines: West Nile virus, anthrax, and SARS.

In this riveting narrative, Maryn McKenna -- the only journalist ever given full access to the EIS in its fifty-three-year history -- follows the first class of disease detectives to come to the CDC after September 11, the first to confront not just naturally occurring outbreaks but the man-made threat of bioterrorism. They are talented researchers -- many with young families -- who trade two years of low pay and extremely long hours for the chance to be part of the group that has helped eradicate smallpox, push back polio, and solve the first major outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease, toxic shock syndrome, and E. coli O157.

Urgent, exhilarating, and compelling, Beating Back the Devil goes with the EIS as they try to stop epidemics -- before the epidemics stop us.
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  • Free Press | 
  • 320 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781439123102 | 
  • July 2008
List Price $21.95
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Read an Excerpt

ONE

Training

July 2002, Atlanta

On a humid, sunny morning in July 2002, a group of eighty-nine men and women met in a windowless auditorium in an unremarkable pale-brick building set in a leafy suburban neighborhood in northeast Atlanta.

The building, the street-side face of a sprawling warren of cubicles, laboratories, and conference rooms, was the headquarters of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, usually known as the CDC. The CDC is the public health agency for the federal government, the organization charged with identifying, tracking, and trying to prevent the infectious and chronic diseases,... see more

About the Author

Maryn McKenna
Photo Credit: Scott Streble

Maryn McKenna

Maryn McKenna is an award-winning science and medical writer and author of Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (named one of the top 10 science books of 2004 by Amazon). She currently works as a contributing writer for the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and is a media fellow at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. She is a graduate of Georgetown University and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, and has also studied at Harvard Medical School. She lives in Minneapolis.

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