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CDC’s Outbreak Summer Blockbuster

Categories: Disease Detectives

We welcome guest blogger Dr. Douglas H. Hamilton, director of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) – AKA the Disease Detectives – at CDC. Photo courtesy of the CDC Public Health Image Library.

There are times when many outbreaks hit all at once. CDC disease detectives are working in communities and responding to outbreaks of hantavirus in California; a bad West Nile Virus season; Salmonella food contamination in cantaloupes and now mangoes; Legionnaires’ disease in Chicago; H3N2 virus in pigs; and plague in Colorado.  This is a summer blockbuster of outbreaks – from some diseases that are seasonal and some that are pretty rare.

The best outbreak is the one that we keep from happening.  Sometimes weeks  go by without our disease detectives needing to deploy to track a deadly illness. During these times CDC is constantly tracking potential diseases, watching what’s out there, spotting patterns of sickness, and working with states and local health departments to protect and serve their communities.  

When these diseases hit, the CDC, as the U.S. health protection agency, is called in to confirm the disease and respond. When states call for help our experts mobilize and we are on the ground with staff and supplies to help local health experts. Our laboratories can identify the exact strain of the germ and help plan how best to control it.  What’s more, the CDC labs serve as the reference point for all labs in the nation—and sometimes around the world—helping to determine the exact disease strain and the best testing methods.  Without these labs, it might take longer to know what is making people sick and what to do about it. CDC’s rapid ability to respond is how the nation’s public health system works to keep more people from becoming sick when outbreaks occur, either from natural or man-made causes.

For example, the 2011 Listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupes in Colorado took just days to identify what was happening.  Previous outbreaks had taken weeks or even months to determine the source of the infections.  This one was identified quickly because of the work that both CDC and the state had done to increase the response capability from the first alert that something was wrong, to investigation and identification of the problem. 

It’s important to America that CDC has this capacity to continue to work 24/7 so that we can respond when called.  Diseases don’t rest, and we don’t either.  We’re ready for today’s blockbuster outbreaks and preparing for those of tomorrow.

Dr. Douglas Hamilton is the director of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS). The EIS’ 160 officers serve as the front-line troops in CDC’s response to health threats both domestic and international. EIS officers respond to approximately 100 requests for help from local, state, national, or international governments. In addition, EIS officers assigned to State and local health departments conduct between 300 and 500 disease investigations a year. Dr. Hamilton has extensive experience teaching epidemiology courses both domestically and in Field Epidemiology Training Programs in many countries around the globe.  In 2010 Dr. Hamilton was recognized as the U.S. Public Health Services Applied Public Health Physician of the Year.

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