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CDC′s Disease Detectives: When the States are Stumped

Lab Man Working CDC EIS officers must be ready to assist 24/7 when asked. In the US, local and state health departments that can′t find the source of a new public health problem can then request federal health agencies to help.

Like investigators at the scene of a crime, disease detectives begin by looking for clues and gathering information about what happened. Disease detectives have various jobs and may work in different places, such as in laboratories where they look for viruses, or bacteria in blood samples, or in public locations where an unknown outbreak is occurring.

Hantavirus in Southwest US

In May 1993, an outbreak of an unexplained pulmonary sickness occurred in the southwestern United States, in an area shared by Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah known as "The Four Corners." A young, physically–fit Navajo man was rushed to a hospital in New Mexico, suffering from shortness of breath, and died very rapidly.

While reviewing the results of the case, medical personnel discovered that the young man′s fiancée had died a few days before, after showing similar symptoms. Although 5 more similar cases were found, the New Mexico Office of Medical Investigations laboratory tests failed to identify the deadly culprit. At this point, the CDC Special Pathogens Branch was notified.

CDC, the state health departments of New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, the Indian Health Service, the Navajo Nation, and the University of New Mexico joined physicians and other scientific experts, narrowing down the list of possible causes. Samples of tissue from infected patients were sent to CDC for exhaustive analysis.

Virologists at CDC used several tests, including new methods to pinpoint virus genes at the molecular level, and were able to link the pulmonary syndrome with a virus. By November 1993, a previously unknown type of hantavirus carried by deer mice was determined to be the carrier of the deadly virus.