by Bryan J. Ellison
Among epidemiologists, it is often half-jokingly referred to as the "medical CIA." Founded in 1951 by public health professor Alexander Langmuir, the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) was first designed to act as an elite biological-warfare countermeasures unit of the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
Langmuir was hired because he also served as one of the select advisors to the Defense Department's chemical and biological warfare program.
The first Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) class of 21 recent medical or biological graduates underwent several weeks of intense training at the Center for Disease Control's Atlanta headquarters, before being dispatched on their two-year assignments on loan to various state or local health departments around the country. They acted as the eyes and ears of the CDC, carefully monitoring for any possible outbreak of war-induced disease.
While on their tours of duty, each EIS officer could be sent elsewhere in the country on a 24 hour-a-day basis. In case of war, the EIS would operate under any emergency powers granted the CDC - potentially including quarantines, mass immunizations, or other drastic measures.
In an article written for the American journal of Public Health (March, 1952), Langmuir made clear that membership in the EIS did not end with the two year assignment, but was permanent. He wrote that "... as a result of their experience, many of these officers may well remain in full-time epidemiology or other public health pursuits at federal, state, or local levels. Some, no doubt, will return to civilian, academic, or clinical practice, but in the event of war they could be returned to active duty with the Public Health Service and assigned to strategic areas to fulfill the functions for which they were trained."
Every year since 1951 has seen a new crop of EIS recruits, some classes over one hundred members in size. The nearly 2,000 alumni have gone on to high positions in society, though rarely advertising their affiliation. Indeed, the CDC has now made the EIS more secretive than ever, having suppressed the public availability of the membership directory since last year.
EIS MEMBERS PLACED IN KEY POSITIONS
Members can be found in the Surgeons General's office and elsewhere in the Federal government, as well as in the World Health Organization, state and local health departments, universities, pharmaceutical companies, tax-exempt foundations, hospitals, and even as staff writers, editors, or news anchormen for major newspapers, scientific journals, and television news departments. In these positions, EIS alumni act not only as the CDC's surveillance arm and emergency reserve, but also as seemingly "independent" advocates for CDC policies.
EIS AND POPULATION "CONTROL"
In time, the fear of artificial disease epidemics faded. But Langmuir and other top CDC officials had always held bigger plans for the EIS. Langmuir, for example, an apostle of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, involved the EIS in the population control movement by the 1960s. The CDC has gained most, however, from EIS activities in natural disease epidemics, to which its "disease detectives" have turned their attention.
THE FLU JAB SCAM
The flu, being truly an infectious disease, often proved itself most valuable to the CDC. Although the winter following the end of World War I was the last time a flu epidemic caused widespread death, the CDC has pushed annual flu vaccinations up to the present day. At times, the agency has even rung the alarm over an impending flu crisis, hoping to use memories of the 1918 epidemic to gain emergency powers and impose mass vaccinations. By using such tactics in 1957 over the Asian flu, the CDC managed to wrangle extra money out of Congress to expand the EIS and crash-produce a vaccine. But the flu season was already winding down by the time the vaccine was ready, and the flu itself turned out to have been as mild as in any other year.
By 1976, CDC director David Sencer wanted to try again, though on a grander scale. After one soldier in Pennsylvania died of a flu-related pneumonia in January, Sencer predicted that a pig-borne human virus nicknamed the "swine flu," would soon devastate the United States.
Panicked with visions of impending doom, Congress moved to authorize the CDC's immunization plan for every man, woman, and child in the country. Unexpectedly, the legislation suddenly stalled when the insurance companies underwriting the vaccine discovered that it had seriously toxic side effects.
THE "LEGIONAIRES DISEASE" SCAM
Sencer had to do something fast. He immediately set up a "War Room" in Auditorium A at the CDC headquarters, and put the EIS network on full alert to search for any disease outbreak that might resemble the flu. Within weeks, the War Room received word of a pneumonia cluster among men just returning home from the Philadelphia convention of the American Legion. Several Philadelphia-based EIS officers and alumni had detected the outbreak, and acted as a fifth column that not only helped arrange an invitation for the CDC to come in, but also took their orders from the arriving team of CDC and EIS Officers. Even the New York Times staff writer sent to cover the story, Lawrence Altman, was himself an EIS alumnus.
The CDC team allowed media rumors to circulate that this Legionnaires' disease was the beginning of the swine flu. Within days, Congress decided to pass the vaccine bill. Only later did the CDC admit that the legionnaires had not been infected by the flu virus, too late to stop the immunization program. Some 50 million Americans received the vaccine, leading to more than a thousand cases of nerve damage and paralysis, dozens of deaths, and lawsuits awarding almost $100 million in damages. In the ultimate irony, no swine flu epidemic ever materialized; the only destruction left behind by the phantom swine flu resulted from the CDC's vaccine.
The agency later blamed Legionnaires' disease on a common soil bacterium, one that clearly fails Koch's postulates for causing the disease and is therefore actually harmless. The legionnaires' deaths are not so hard to understand, since the pneumonias struck elderly men, many of whom had undergone kidney transplant operations, and who had become particularly drunk during the Bicentennial celebration - the classic risks for pneumonia. Thus Legionnaires' disease" is not an infectious condition, but merely a new name for old pneumonias.