Hunting for the Hidden Killers: AIDS

Disease detectives face a never ending quest

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In addition to the 1,000 requests for help that come from state and local agencies each year, the CDC undertakes about 50 projects overseas. Recent examples: tackling a polio epidemic in Indonesia meningitis in Upper Volta, malaria in Zanzibar, toxic reaction to polluted cooking oil in Spain and observing an immunization program against childhood diseases in China. Dr. Bess Miller, 35, was exhausted from working on the AIDS epidemic last year when the phone at home rang one evening. "My first thought was that they wanted to send me somewhere," she recalls. They did. Soon she was in the Israeli-occupied West Bank investigating a mysterious malady afflicting young Palestinian schoolgirls. Miller and Israeli health officials concluded that the problem was caused by a wave of hysteria; it soon disappeared.

CDC's most sophisticated facility is its Maximum Containment Laboratory, which handles highly lethal diseases that have no known antidotes. Workers, all of whom are volunteers, must punch in a code to open the outer shell of the lab; after a trip through a chemical-shower chamber, they must provide another personal number to gain access to the pressurized inner sanctum. There the scientists wear seamless blue space suits, equipped with their own air filtration systems, to work with some of the world's most lethal microbes, including those that cause Lassa fever and Ebola virus, two maladies that produce severe internal bleeding and are native to Africa. There have been no fatalities in the lab. When a worker is exposed to a disease, he is flown to the Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md.

Other CDC experts work with Immigration and Naturalization Service officials to prevent exotic diseases from entering the country. Laboratory Director Joseph McCormick, who studied Lassa fever in Sierra Leone, sped to the Atlanta airport in a four-wheel-drive vehicle during a snowstorm last January to pick up a mysteriously ailing passenger from Nigeria. The man was placed in an isolation room until it was certain he was not suffering from one of the deadly viruses.

The case that made the CDC known to the public at large remains a classic in the annals of medical detective work. In July 1976, Pennsylvania chapters of the American Legion held a rollicking convention at Philadelphia's Bellevue Stratford Hotel. In the next few days, eleven Pennsylvanians died, apparently of pneumonia; a Legion officer alerted health authorities that the victims all had attended the convention. A phone call was made to Atlanta for help. Late that night, Dr. Theodore Tsai, an EIS officer, arrived in the state health office, carrying a cooler, to collect blood samples and respiratory secretions. He was the first of 32 CDC officials who worked on the case.

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