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What's On This Year's Agenda The "Disease Detectives?"


The Centers for Disease Control have confirmed the first U.S. death associated with the Zika virus. The victim was a Puerto Rican man in his 70s infected with Zika. He died from a rare autoimmune complication. That news comes as the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service meets in Atlanta, EIS as it's known. The members are America's disease detectives. And this week's gathering is their annual one where they share findings and best practices and welcome the new class of investigators. Josh Mott is the director of the EIS. He'll be there in Atlanta with about 80 new disease detectives.

JOSH MOTT: In the incoming class, there's about 37 physicians. There's also nurses, veterinarians and nonclinical doctoral scientists, each bringing their own unique set of skills to bear in the increasing complicated world of emerging threats.

MARTIN: So can you walk me through a case or something that could illustrate how you go about tracking a disease that perhaps hasn't risen to epidemic scale yet or is not even on the mainstream radar yet?

MOTT: What they do is use tried and true investigative techniques in whatever investigation scenario that they're in to do this.

MARTIN: Tried and true like what? Can you walk me through some of the basics of doing this work?

MOTT: Sure. I think really what's tried and true about EIS is when we've been able to go in and gather evidence to make a change that leads to a policy change to improve public health. It might be looking at a cluster of illness in women that ended up being toxic shock syndrome. And when we went and investigated and looked at all the commonalities across those cases, we learned that it was a particular brand of product that needed to be pulled from the shelf.

MARTIN: That happened?

MOTT: That happened. That was a high-profile investigation in the '70s. It happened about the same time that we were looking at clusters of illness in children where we learned that prescribing aspirin following a viral infection can lead to Reye's syndrome. And that led to changes in our doctors' prescription patterns. But it's the rapid investigation using the evidence that you have at hand that they are trained to do to go in and make quick decisions that can ultimately prevent further disease and indeed save lives.

In other situations, such as following Hurricane Katrina, as the city of New Orleans was repopulating itself, we had to help establish surveillance systems to look for all kinds of possible illnesses and conditions and to track that. And we had to do it in such a way that we could be confident that if there were something there, we would see it. So sometimes their work is just as important in helping to confirm that the absence of a particular problem in a situation.

MARTIN: Josh Mott - he is the director of the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service or EIS. Thanks so much for your time.

MOTT: Sure. Happy to. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.