BEATING BACK THE DEVIL: On The Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service

Top 10 Science Books of 2004,
Outstanding Academic Title, American Library Association
Best Nonfiction Books of 2004, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Georgia Author of the Year, 2004

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, 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 — 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.

"Maryn McKenna was so close to the first group of E.I.S. officers trained after 9/11 that she could practically smell the adrenaline rush they got from being on call in case bioterrorism or a deadly disease struck anywhere on the globe. In McKenna's hands, outbreak investigations read as richly textured mysteries worthy of P.D. James."
- Patricia Tho
mas, Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism, University of Georgia, and author of Big Shot: Passion, Politics, and the Struggle for an AIDS Vaccine

"In her enthralling first book, Maryn McKenna takes us inside the unexplored world of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, a vital but rarely discussed part of our national public health service. Without McKenna's thorough research and lively narrative, who would have known of the crusading role the EIS has played since the 1950s in solving our most perplexing medical mysteries? In a new world of bioterror threats and harrowing viruses, McKenna's book is a must-read for anyone concerned about the daunting medical challenges of the future."
- Marilyn W. Thompson, Washington Post, deputy national editor, author of The Killer Strain: Anthrax and a Government Exposed

"Among candidates for world's worst job, disease detective ranks pretty high. In Beating Back the Devil, Maryn McKenna examines the everyday fascinations and horrors faced by the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service….McKenna's research is painstakingly meticulous, and the doctors she profiles come across as brave firefighters of microbiological conflagrations. Not since Sherwin Nuland has an author so effectively revealed the dramatic side of medicine."
- Therese Littleton,

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Read a sample

Prologue: Bioterror training

Chapter 1: First meetings, first outbreaks

Chapter 13: The race to solve SARS

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Contact Maryn for interview requests here.