Truth be told I’m like the Brent Spiner character. Not Lieutenant Commander Data in Star Trek, but as Dr. Brackish Okun in the 1996 movie Independence Day.
They don’t let me out much. There is probably a good reason for that and I’m OK with it. I went through a time when I traveled a lot. It was part of the reason I relocated to Denver, because whether you are going to Miami or Milano, it’s a nonstop flight from Denver International Airport.
Like many others who once desired a business life involving travel, I grew to despise it. Once you’ve changed planes just one too many times in Atlanta or been caught in one too many of those schedule-busting thunder storms, the attraction of traveling disappears.
Now if I had to travel that much, I’d be crying on the way to the airport. My best production occurs when I stay put with a computer and telephone. So they don’t let me out much.
This week is a rare exception. The California Environmental Health Association (CEHA), meeting in Sacramento, has invited me to be one of its after-lunch speakers and talk about the deadliest foodborne outbreaks in U.S. history.
This came about because last fall, with casualties mounting from the Listeria outbreak caused by Colorado cantaloupes, we began searching about for what to compare it with historically.
We were not accustomed to making comparisons on the basis of a body count. More often, we described the size of outbreaks based on the number of illnesses or, more commonly, the amount of contaminated food involved — such as more eggs or more ground beef than ever before.
Such records are increasingly broken, it seems.
But Colorado’s Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes sent us searching for foodborne epidemics that might have been similarly lethal.
At about that time, we got a hand from Elizabeth Weise at USA Today, who went looking for answers about the deadliest outbreaks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where she found there was no institutional memory before 1967 and nothing on computer before 1973.
Robert Tauxe, CDC’s deputy director, then shared with her some of the outbreaks that make public health textbooks.
With that, we came up with top 10 list to place last year’s deadly cantaloupe-borne Listeria outbreak in context.
But we also discovered that deadly outbreaks fell into two camps. Those in the last 20 years that we knew most everything about, and those that occurred earlier that we knew almost nothing about.
When CEHA invited me to speak, I decided I’d better go about finding out everything I could about the 10 most-lethal outbreaks of foodborne illness.
I thought I’d probably have to rely mostly on contemporary newspaper articles, assuming that public health officials in earlier eras would not have created much of a record.
Boy was I wrong.
I found contemporary accounts of the deadly outbreaks in a variety of journals, often written by professionals who became legendary figures in public health. I found these accounts were usually more thorough and certainly more colorful than what we get out of CDC today.
And I am not just talking about CDC’s tendency to cover up names of some of the parties involved in outbreaks. No, I think that the CDC, through committee structures, has developed a template for outbreak reports with so many rules that its investigation updates are both consistent and boring as hell.
By contrast, in the first half of the last century, these reports were apparently assigned to the best professional available who had a flair for writing and an eye for history.
In these historic reports, published by such organizations as the Association of Schools of Public Health, Public Health Reports, and others, the attention to detail is sometimes astounding. Today the CDC will list the states that reported outbreak-related deaths. The journal accounts often say who was at the bedside when outbreak victims died.
The older accounts give an expert, compelling narrative of everything that happened, like someone telling a story in person. Now, I am afraid, we get what amounts to a sterile data dump.
Mostly because of these past storytellers, I have something to share with the audience in Sacramento on Wednesday. I am grateful to have been invited by a brave group of people who remain dedicated to public health and the environment in a state where some cities are going bankrupt and many are cash-strapped.
CEHA dates back to 1928, and for years was known as National Association of Sanitarians(NAS). In 1970, when its membership first went over 5,000, it changed its name to CEHA.
Also on Wednesday, Food Safety News will announce at least one addition (and re-ordering) of the 10 deadliest foodborne outbreaks we’ve come across in our research.
Should be an exciting week!