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Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  1,655 ratings  ·  133 reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 303 pages
Published August 31st 2004 by Free Press
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3.90  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,655 ratings  ·  133 reviews

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Petra Eggs
For two days I have done very little except read this book. I thought it was going to be dry, but interesting talking objectively of the work of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and various other government organisations dealing with mass outbreaks of disease and germ warfare. But I was wrong! It was anything but dry. A fabulous read. Travel, adventure, humour, mystery, plot twists, interesting characters, it really had it all.

The best of the mystery stories was when four babies died of li
This is a well researched look inside the EIS. I am in disagreement over the first fatal bioterrorism attack on American soil. McKenna writes:

It is ten months since two hijacked planes brought down New York City’s World Trade Center, and nine months since a set of mailed envelopes, loaded with finely milled anthrax, accomplished the first fatal bioterrorist attack in American history on American soil.

There were earlier fatal bioterrorism attacks in America. Smallpox was used as a bioweapon by B
Mar 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I picked this book because my husband was an EIS officer for the last 2 years. He loved his time as one and I wanted to read more about other's experience. The author probably picked the 2 busiest years the CDC has had in a long time. They dealt with 9/ll, Anthrax and SARS on top of all of the normal stuff. It seems like those couple of years were pivotal when it came to the world and not only the USA getting it's act together to enable them to handle global public health threats. My husbands 2 ...more
This is a book about the Epidemic Intelligence Service, the "disease detective corps" of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For three weeks, Ph.D.s, nurses, doctors, veterinarians, dentists, and even lawyers are trained in epidemiology and public health. They are put through a rigorous class schedule, frightening simulations, and even yanked out of classes to deal with disease outbreaks. Once they are fully trained, they spend two years working where-ever they are needed. Their work ...more
Apr 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
Eye-opening and informative.
Brooke Evans
Apr 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
OK, now I'm not quite sure how any of us ever live past 35. This book was fascinating, terrifying, informative, etc. Pretty amazing to hear about the experiences of CDC officers and the projects they work on and how. It was a little bit difficult to keep track of all the different people mentioned and followed in the book, but I kind of just didn't worry about exactly who everyone was and tried to focus on the rest of what was going on.

Also, it was kinda mindblowing how many of these epidemics I
Fred Dameron
Apr 16, 2019 rated it it was ok
This short book is poorly written, choppy, and although it tells great stories, over all a bad read. One thing it does do is set a start date for the decline of the CDC and the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) as Late 2004/5. This is when both services started to be driven by Washington politics than by what the nation needed from it's leading doctors, biologists, virologists, and disease hunters. This down grade of the CDC is a direct result of GOP politicians who do NOT understand science a ...more
I did not finish this book so these are my thoughts only about two-thirds of it.
Parts of it were really interesting, and parts were rather boring. It was interesting to read about the struggles these doctors faced while living in India and struggling to eradicate smallpox. It wasn’t so interesting reading about the rather mundane struggles they faced living in Atlanta and trying to balance careers and parenting. It was interesting reading about their learning to dress safely at a contaminated
Kathy Chumley
This is a fascinating look at the work done by the CDC's disease detectives.
Nov 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Good summary of previous outbreak investigations conducted by EIS officers. I learned a lot. However, it was written in quite a sensational nature. I don't think that public health work is ever quite as flashy!
Jan 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely incredible book.
Presley Dunkel
Mar 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
I will admit, at the start of this book it had trouble grabbing my attention but that quickly changed. Once I got to "polio" I couldn't stop reading. From the training methods the CDC put their EIS members through to the everlasting threat of Terrorism, this book is a great read. Especially if you are trying to learn more about different strains of diseases (which was my reasoning for reading this book), or if you want a book that gives you a different perspective on civilizations around the wo ...more
John Wiswell
Sep 06, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Disease freaks, science readers, political readers
The true stories themselves are fascinating, following people connected to the Epidemic Intelligence Service, an organization founded some sixty years ago to combat biological warfare and disease epidemics. That means that for decades they have been deployed to deal with small pox, SARS, and a mysterious immune disorder striking gay men that became the nightmare of HIV/AIDS. They were in charge during the post-9/11 anthrax scare, and were deployed on desperate missions to fight primitive disease ...more
May 08, 2016 rated it liked it
I'm a medical interpreter so this book is right in my sweet spot - disease! International locales! Shoe-leather epidemiology, oh my!

The officers of the EIS track down diseases, figuring out where they hide and what makes them spread. It can be exciting but a lot of it is good ol' detective work - gathering data, analyzing trends, tracking down leads. We watch the officers do their thing in LA, Malawi, and beyond.

A wide range of diseases are covered, from malaria to SARS. I was drawn to outbreaks
Jul 29, 2015 rated it liked it
I'm a little shocked that McKenna can take such fascinating subject matter and turn it into a book that's Sahara dry. If you are interested in the subject matter, a brief selective history of the CDC, like me, its 4 star subject matter, but its 2 star writing. I'd recommend reading the book if you're also fascinated, but be warned it reads like an EIS 101 text book... here are the salient facts you should memorize for the test...
My biggest pet peeve is there's too much detail about people that
Jenny Brown
Feb 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
A very informative account of the work of the EIS division of the CDC. It describes several major health crises where the CDC stepped in and goes into illuminating detail about what its investigators do.

Most of these were epidemics that appeared in the press but you'll learn a lot more about them here.

The author also documents the way that the US Public Health Service was militarized by a Bush appointee in a way that makes no sense at all. The scientists were forced to wear uniforms at all tim
Apr 11, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Diseases are fun! This book probably gave me the idea to want to become and epidemiologist. I read it during the summer while waiting for my dance class... It's always fun going from epidemics to ballet. Non-fiction books have a bad reputation of being boring. This book wasn't. It was almost like an anthology of different mysteries. True mysteries... with diseases!
Jul 14, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biology-genetics
This is the sort of work I would be doing if I were ten times as ambitious, but just as cool.
Sep 01, 2016 marked it as to-read
Shelves: nonfiction
Recommended by Get Booked podcast
Alexander Miles
Mar 19, 2019 rated it liked it
Beating Back the Devil was an interesting read; I'd never even heard of the EIS before picking up this book on a recommendation (I believe the Slate Gabfest mentioned it). The chapters provided a lot of detail on how various outbreaks played out, many of them I'd only heard about in a cursory way while I was growing up, such as the anthrax scare and SARS. Somehow I'd never understood the scope of these outbreaks before, nor how direct and intensive the CDC's involvement was in combatting them.

Apr 20, 2018 rated it did not like it
Wasn't expecting trans antagonism in a book about infectious diseases and the EIS and yet here we are. I know this book is 15 years old but even 15 years ago it was pretty easy to know trans women are not men who dress up as women and that drag queens and crossdressers are not universally trans women (some trans women start in that scene to explore their gender but a trans woman and a drag queen are not universally the same and saying so is transmisogyny). Also calling a group of trans women men ...more
Chris C
Feb 27, 2019 rated it liked it
Material: 5, Writing: 2, overall 3.5.

This is a great read about the CDC and more specifically about its Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) members who are the health care specialists that track down diseases around the world to help stop their spread & find a cure. The one major flaw in the book is that the writing has all the charm & verve of a paper bag; it is cut dry, bland, and almost sleep inducing. Luckily, the stories about different EIS endeavors are fascinating by themselves t
Jul 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
I think this is a great book. I never read anything about the CDC but I have read a lot of books on diseases and illnesses. I never actually knew anything about the EIS (I didn't even know that it existed! Well...I kinda did, but I didn't know it was a special task force!)

This is a fast-paced book that's really interesting and so candid. I didn't feel lost or "stupid" reading the book. McKenna makes things easy to understand and it's not only a horrifying read but an eye-opening one. There's def
Tim Jin
Apr 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
I heard about this book from a Podcast that I listen to. They had an episode on the Measles epidemic that is going on. "Beating Back the Devil" was published in 2004, about 15 years ago. As a germ freak, I was scratching myself from phantom itches as I was reading this book. This book had concrete information on all outbreaks that we had in the past.

I have a friend that works for CDC. Whenever we meet up, I always cringe on what she is going to tell me to look out for. There are some things tha
Peter Gerges
Feb 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
In this book, it first explained the history of all the forces going against diseases "the devil", and then it discusses the main diseases that they went against. Those diseases might include Polio, West Nile River, AIDS, and malaria. It also mentions all the types of training that those companies do to the newcomers, and how they get ready for an epidemic that might arise at any moment. However, I would only recommend this to a person that is interested in the history of diseases, and how all t ...more
Oct 16, 2017 rated it liked it
I'd rate this 3.5 stars if I could - it's interesting, but I think it lacks a cohesive narrative even though the author does her best to construct one and make the characters relatable on a personal level. I love reading about epidemics, but it was a little frustrating that some of the ones in this book weren't covered very in depth while others were much more detailed. Maybe that was the point, to look at the breadth of what the EIS does, but it felt a little scattered.
Jun 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
A gripping account of the heroic actions of the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service - and a good companion to Mark Pendergrast's "Inside the Outbreaks." The author unfortunately seems confused about the difference between transsexual and transvestite, however, or else fails to articulate the distinction clearly.
Daphyne Shimeall
Feb 22, 2019 rated it liked it
Fascinating read. Each chapter covers a major case and follows the epidemic through to its conclusion. The only drawback is that it needs updating. The chapter on the 2001 anthrax attack still assumes the case to be unsolved, and the book would benefit from an additional chapter on the Ebola outbreak of 2014.
Parikshit Juluri
Mar 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book was amazing. I was not aware of the existence of the EIS prior to listening to the author talk on NPR. This book talks about the timelines of several epidemics and the role played by the EIS detectives during these events. I enjoyed learning about the methods and the techniques that they used to track the cases and detect the source of the epidemics. A must-read.
Jan 29, 2018 rated it it was ok
The portions of this book that focused on the epidemics were very interesting. The parts that focused on the people involved were less enjoyable. The descriptive style would've been more at home in a YA novel.
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Maryn McKenna is a journalist and author who specializes in public health, global health and food policy.

She has reported from epidemics and disasters, and farms and food production sites, on most of the continents, including a field hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, a Thai village erased by the Indian Ocean tsunami, a bird-testing unit on the front lines of West Nile virus, an Arc
“She was in charge of the 'red team,' the group taking blood samples. (The group collecting urine to check pesticide exposure levels called themselves the 'gold team' in response.)” 1 likes
“Health and dignity are indissociable in human beings,” he said at the ceremony. “It is a duty to stay close to victims and guarantee their rights.” Urbani” 0 likes
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