Mark Pendergrast

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Mark Pendergrast speaks at universities, schools of public health, business conferences, management seminars, and psychological meetings. His presentations are tailored to his audience but are always entertaining, thought-provoking, and challenging. Contact him to arrange an event. Click here for links to speeches, TV, and radio appearances. Click here for comments on his presentations.

March 21, 2010 blog

Welcome to my first blog.  (Actually, I wrote a different essay originally, but Amazon wanted to run it as an exclusive entry on their website for my book, so that’s where you can read it.)  I plan to write a new blog entry once a week (on Sundays), but we’ll see whether I can stick to that schedule.  My new book, Inside the Outbreaks, a history of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (a part of the CDC) is due out in April.  I just got a copy of the book, so it is off the presses.  It took over five years to research and write.  I wished that I could write it more quickly, but it was a complex story involving many different characters and diseases.  It certainly kept my attention the entire time.  Still, everyone I knew kept telling me that now would be the perfect time for the book to come out.  Hurry up!

Avian flu was exploding around the world!  Monkeypox had invaded America’s heartland!

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and EIS officers descended.

Here in Vermont, an unusual number of people in a state office building in Bennington came down with sarcoidosis, a mysterious, still unexplained disease.

In Panama, EIS officers traced 46 children’s deaths to a liquid expectorant cold medicine contaminated with diethylene glycol sold by a Chinese firm as harmless glycerine.

Rift Valley fever struck in northeastern Kenya.

Cans of Castleberry’s canned Hot Dog Chili Sauce caused botulism in the United States.

A bizarre neurological illness in Minnesota slaughterhouse workers was traced to aerosolized pig brains.

Marburg and Ebola virus struck in Uganda, while Ebola killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then hit Uganda.

Children across the U. S. played the “choking game,” in which they nearly strangled themselves in order to experience a brief euphoria caused by cerebral atoxia.  An EIS officer documented 82 resulting deaths.

A nation-wide Salmonella saintpaul epidemic sickened over 1,400 people in the United States and was finally traced to hot peppers imported from Mexico.

In April 2009 a completely new H1N1 influenza strain with genetic components from swine, birds, and humans emerged in the United States and Mexico.  The media called it “swine flu.”  Over the next few months, it spread throughout the world, creating a new pandemic.

And still I kept working on the book, and still my friends kept telling me that now would be the perfect time for the book to come out.

But guess what?  Now is the perfect time for the book to come out, and next week, and next year, and next decade.  One thing I have learned from my research is that nature (and human interaction with nature) will continue to provide surprise epidemics and public health problems on a regular basis.

When Alexander Langmuir moved to the CDC and then founded the Epidemic Intelligence Service in 1951, many of his friends told him he was crazy.  Antibiotics and vaccines would soon make infectious diseases obsolete.  He was focusing on a dying field.

That turned out not to be the case.  Bacteria quickly adapted to resist antibiotics.  Vaccines were useful but difficult, even in the United States, to get to all the children.  And vaccines would cause their own problems and controversies.

In addition, EIS officers have tried to deal with seemingly intractable problems caused by human behavior – smoking, drinking, poor diet, and lack of exercise are killing us more surely than microbes.

So, unfortunately, now is a great time for Inside the Outbreaks to come out, and the lessons to be learned from it will be applicable into the indefinite future.  In future blogs, I will deal with these public health issues in more detail.  I think I’ll write about the immense death toll of unclean water in my next entry.