This week I bring your attention to “Deadly Outbreaks” by Alexandra M. Levitt of the Centers for Disease Control. I first became aware of epidemiology (the branch of medical science that deals with the incidence, distribution, and control of disease) when I stumbled across a book titled “Eleven Blue Men” (published in 1965 and now, sadly, out of print) that contained fascinating stories about medical detection. That was years ago in the old Carnegie library on Wall Avenue, and the library’s copy is long since gone. While the library unfortunately cannot replace that book in our collection, this new book reminded me of it as well as a terrific 1950’s film, “Panic in the Streets” which is one of the best movies ever about epidemiology (no, there aren’t many, but we do own “And the Band Played On” and “Contagion” as well) and so we shall be adding “Panic”, perhaps by the time you read this.
In any event, back to the book! The subtitle is “How medical detectives save lives threatened by killer pandemics, exotic viruses, and drug-resistant parasites” which pretty well outlines the contents. It’s a bit lacking in flair and not light reading, but it certainly gives a good sense of what epidemiologists go through and the importance of their work. We would all be much worse off if the folks at the Center for Disease Control and their other federal, state, and local colleagues didn’t work so diligently and, if you don’t believe me, the book should convince you.
The book covers the investigations into seven relatively recent public health crises of varying impacts and sizes, ranging in scope from the deaths of a number of babies in one specific hospital to the West Nile Virus, steadily making its way across the country. Some of the epidemiologists appear in more than one case, and cover the gamut from medical doctors to PhDs in various fields and those with Masters’ degrees in Public Health and even a veterinary epidemiologist.
The saddest and most chilling of the cases concerns the babies who died in a cardiology ward at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto in the early 1980’s. A rush to judgment from a hasty police investigation implicated a nurse, but after a great deal of news coverage had her practically convicted in the public’s mind, she was conclusively cleared of any involvement. After that, someone got the bright idea to call in the experts to try to find out what had really happened. The detective work outlined was quite impressive but, although they reached a near certainty of who the guilty party actually was, no one was ever charged in connection with the deaths. A government commission did reach the conclusion that between eight and twenty-three babies had been killed with overdoses of digoxin, but found insufficient evidence to charge anyone. Some good did come of the case, though, as many hospitals overhauled their drug dispensing routines, preventing untold numbers of accidental poisonings as well, perhaps, as some intentional ones.
Other chapters cover the discovery of the Hanta virus out west, an ice cream linked outbreak of Salmonella, the Legionnaire’s Disease outbreak, and a refugee story that shows just how easily a widespread outbreak of any number of drug-resistant diseases might happen. Interesting, if not comforting, reading.
By the way, if you were intrigued by the title of “Eleven Blue Men,” that particular case (if I remember correctly) involved an accidental poisoning in a restaurant in New York in which the cook mixed up his salts. That should remind us all to be careful in the kitchen!