June 2010


After you’re through scanning our list of 251 top doctors in this month’s issue to see if your own doctor made the list, I urge you to turn to page 64 for Thomas Lake’s story on H1N1, better known as swine flu. The media have devoted countless broadcast hours and acres of newsprint to the virus that, unlike the seasonal flu bug, mysteriously favors the young and healthy. Here at Atlanta magazine, we have a luxury that is growing increasingly rare in the frenetic world of modern-day journalism: time. Over the course of several months, Tom spent hours with some of the scores of scientists and doctors at the CDC who tracked the virus and helped develop a vaccine. As he introduces us to a happy young couple in Johns Creek who found themselves in the virus’s crosshairs, Tom’s story demonstrates why the stakes of the CDC’s work couldn’t be greater.

For a lot of us, it can be easy to forget the CDC is even here. It’s nowhere near the Connector, it doesn’t figure prominently (or at all, actually) in Atlanta’s skyline, it’s not a Fortune 500 company, and in recent years it has been woefully under-covered in the local media. In late April, a branch of the CDC called the Epidemic Intelligence Service hosted its annual conference at a hotel near the airport. The EIS was founded during the Korean War, when biological warfare became a very real threat. In the sixty years since, the “disease detectives,” as they’re known, have been dispatched to track down outbreaks of polio, Legionnaires’ disease, Ebola, Asian flu, E. coli, and on and on. Today, each EIS class consists of about eighty officers, a mix of medical doctors, scientists, and even veterinarians. The logo of the EIS is the sole of a shoe over a map of the world; the sole has a hole in it, to indicate the peripatetic nature of the job. When I spoke in early May to Doug Hamilton, the program’s director, he had just sent officers to Central America to monitor influenza, another officer to Guam to check on a mumps outbreak, another two to Uganda to investigate hepatitis E. “Our officers are in many ways the frontline troops for the CDC when they respond to a public health problem,” Hamilton told me. The H1N1 outbreak that Tom writes about in this issue was essentially an all-hands-on-deck situation for the EIS; the scale of the investigation spanned three different EIS classes and involved 184 officers.

But the work of EIS isn’t all about high-profile diseases. A glance at the EIS’s conference schedule reflected the varied work tackled by the agency’s researchers. Topics ranged from the arcane (“Potluck Dinner Outbreak of Salmonella IV Infections Associated with Contamination from Bearded Dragon Reptiles”) to the alarming (“Onsite Case-Finding During a Tuberculosis Outbreak in a Homeless Shelter—Georgia”). The thousands of scientists who have gone through the EIS program are the first responders when public health is at peril, and the work they do gives the rest of us the privilege to remain blissfully unaware.

Contact Steve Fennessy at sfennessy@atlantamag.emmis.com