Beating Back the Devil by Maryn McKenna


6759134The universal human instinct is to run from an outbreak of disease like Ebola. These doctors run toward it. Their job is to stop epidemics from happening.

They are the disease detective corps of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the federal agency that tracks and tries to prevent disease outbreaks and bioterrorist attacks around the world. They are formally called the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS)—a group founded more than fifty years ago out of fear that the Korean War might bring the use of biological weapons—and, like intelligence operatives in the traditional sense, they perform their work largely in anonymity.

In this riveting narrative, Maryn McKenna—the only journalist ever given full access to the EIS in its fifty-three-year history—follows the first class of disease detectives to come to the CDC after September 11, the first to confront not just naturally occurring outbreaks but the man-made threat of bioterrorism. Urgent, exhilarating, and compelling, Beating Back the Devil takes you inside the world of these medical detectives who are trying to stop the next epidemic—before the epidemics stop us.


I’m a medical interpreter so this book is right in my sweet spot – disease! International locales! Shoe-leather epidemiology, oh my!  (It doesn’t roll off the tongue but go with me here.)

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 that I knew existed but had only a basic idea how they started – polio, AIDS, West Nile. The medical information is easily digestible and relatively jargon free.

I listened on audio and I’m not sure it was the best way to enjoy this book. I didn’t click with the narrator (weird pauses, mispronouncing some medical terms) and would have probably enjoyed the words more if they were on a page. The library only had the audio version though, so whatevs.

An easy recommendation to fellow medical nuts.