Public Health Preparedness & Response

Killer Outbreaks — Public Health Saves the Day

By Sikha Singh, MHS, Senior Specialist, Laboratory Response Network, APHL

Animal Planet has a fascinating new show called Killer Outbreaks that chronicles real-life episodes involving deadly diseases. Anthrax, E. Coli 0157, hantavirus, rabies, West Nile virus, monkeypox, salmonella, valley fever, meningococcal disease, SARS and MRSA  all star in this series.

While many think these diseases reside far, far away, the show emphasizes the fact that nearly anyone can fall victim to these pathogens with potentially lethal consequences. We live in a world where frequent plane travel leaves no corner of the globe untouched and where hazards resulting from biological terrorism and natural disasters threaten to compromise public safety on an alarmingly regular basis.

Public health laboratories detect, diagnose, control and mitigate these threats, serving as a bridge between small town doctors in community hospitals and top scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The season opener contrasted a naturally-occurring anthrax infection with the 2001 terrorist attacks that killed five Americans and sickened 17 others.  A middle-aged African dance instructor becomes infected after building drums from contaminated hides, engendering an intensive investigation by CDC and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to identify the source of the infection before others became ill. Ultimately, the victim makes a full recovery after successful treatment when CDC decides to try an antibody called “immunoglobulin” which had never before been tried.  And how did the investigatory team know to pursue this particular disease agent?  The answer: the lab. New York City had a new high-security laboratory that opened in 2004. Dr. Thomas Frieden, the city health commissioner at the time (now the director of CDC), said that the new lab was working around the clock to test the dozens of samples collected.  Yet again, the lab was successful in protecting the lives of millions of people living in New York City.

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