Stuff in the ‘medical detectives’ Category

9 October, 2013


41FdfmLfXOL._AA160_Alexandra Levitt, the author of Deadly Outbreaks, is a health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  She received her graduate training in biology at Columbia University and her post-graduate training at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  As an Assistant Professor at New York University School of Medicine in the 1990s, she studied the molecular biology of malaria parasites and lectured on the use of DNA probes in diagnostics, epidemiology, and vaccine research.  She also spent a semester as a Visiting Professor at the University of Sao Paulo, and traveled to the Amazon city of Porto Velho, Rondonia, to gather parasite specimens to take home to her laboratory in New York.

At the time, research on tropical diseases like malaria–which kill millions of children in poor countries every year–was not a priority for the United States.  During a phone meeting to discuss her research grant, an official from the National Institutes of Health, she was challenged to come to Washington to help change national policy.  The following year, Dr. Levitt became an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Diplomacy Fellow assigned to the U.S. Department of State, where she coordinated a government-wide review of the global threat posed by emerging infectious diseases, including new, drug-resistant, and re-emerging diseases.  That review became the basis of a new U.S. policy on infectious diseases, laid out in a Presidential Decision Directive (  The new policy led to greater U.S. engagement on global health issues and contributed to today’s emphasis on putting control of diseases that cause poverty and economic stagnation (e.g., malaria, AIDS, and TB) at the center of development efforts in poor nations.

The idea for Deadly Outbreaks—a book of real-life outbreak mystery stories—came from the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE), the national society of medical detectives (formally called “field epidemiologists”).  CSTE was looking for a way to showcase medical detection as an exciting and rewarding career for students interested in science and math.  Dr. Levitt was approached by Patrick J. McConnon, the Executive Director of CSTE, who offered to tell her an outbreak story he had never told publicly before.  Working in Bangkok in the 1980s, as the CDC official responsible for oversight of heath issues at refugee camps in Southeast Asia, he learned that a group of Cambodian refugees about to leave the camps after many years were suffering from a rare, drug-resistant form of malaria.  He told Dr. Levitt an amazing story about his race against time to investigate this dangerous form of malaria and ensure that the disease did not spread out of Thailand. That story—which became Chapter Twoinspired Dr. Levitt to begin collecting other unusual outbreak tales to include in Deadly Outbreaks.

“Following in the tradition of Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters (1926), which described the discovery of various microbes, and Berton
Rouche’s Eleven Blue Men (1953), which described outbreaks of different diseases, Deadly Outbreaks describes the learn-by-doing approach to the practice of epidemiology by “disease detectives” at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Epidemic
Intelligence Service (EIS) and at state and local health agencies. It is a timely reminder that the battle with infectious diseases and other outbreaks is an on-going struggle, as epidemiologists in each age are challenged by newly-emerged pathogens, newly-realized pathways for old pathogens, and other unpredictable surprises. And for all the welcome and powerful new tools of computers, faster communications and more sophisticated statistical techniques, we see how much still depends on inquiring minds and dogged determination.

— Donald R. Hopkins, M.D., M.P.H., Vice President, Health Programs, The Carter Center (Excerpted from the Foreword)

7 September, 2013

Deadly Outbreaks, Alexandra M. Levitt, Ph.D.

Take a visit to the frontline as scientists fight to solve medical mysteries.

Despite a41FdfmLfXOL._AA160_dvances in health care, infectious microbes continue to be a formidable adversary to scientists and doctors. Vaccines and antibiotics, the mainstays of modern medicine, have not been able to conquer infectious microbes because of their amazing ability to adapt, evolve, and spread to new places. Terrorism aside, one of the greatest dangers from infectious disease we face today is from a massive outbreak of drug-resistant microbes.

Deadly Outbreaks recounts the scientific adventures of a special group of intrepid individuals who investigate these outbreaks around the world and figure out how to stop them. Part homicide detective, part physician, these medical investigators must view the problem from every angle, exhausting every possible source of contamination. Any data gathered in the field must be stripped of human sorrows and carefully analyzed into hard statistics.

Author Dr. Alexandra Levitt is an expert on emerging diseases and other public health threats. Here she shares insider accounts she’s collected that go behind the alarming headlines we’ve seen in the media: mysterious food poisonings, unexplained deaths at a children’s hospital, a strange neurologic disease afflicting slaughterhouse workers, flocks of birds dropping dead out of the sky, and drug-resistant malaria running rampant in a refugee camp. Meet the resourceful investigators—doctors, veterinarians, and research scientists—and discover the truth behind these cases and more. 15 black-and-white illustrations, 8 color illustrations