This ain’t no CSI: tracking down foodborne illness

While others bitch, whine and moan — and armchair quarterback — about the investigation into the outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul, Elizabeth Weise of USA Today decided to spend a couple of days in the shoes of an epidemiologist. Or two.

There are the pit bulls, chained and unchained. The scary-looking guy with bloodshot eyes. The 37 houses in a row with people who don’t want to talk. The trailers in the middle of the desert with only a TV watching over a couple of kids.

And that’s just the lede. Seriously, this is a great story.

Elizabeth Russo, 32, and Kanyin Liane Ong, 28, arrived in Albuquerque two weeks ago, one of three CDC teams sent to New Mexico to interview people who have become sick in the past few weeks. Their mission is to gather data to answer a troubling question: Why did the first surveys done of salmonella patients in New Mexico point so strongly to tomatoes when later cases seemed to implicate jalapeños?

Russo, a doctor, is one of 70 young scientists admitted each year to the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), a pre-eminent training ground for public health staff.

"This is applied public health," says Ian Williams, chief of CDC’s Outbreak Net Team, which tracks illnesses nationally.

"The way you learn is you go out in the field, and you do it in the trenches. …You can sit in your office and speculate all you want, but it takes people out in the field to really get to the bottom of it."