Though most of this week’s reports have focused on vaccines to cure an endemic or epidemic, there is much to be said yet for the value of  human analysis and modern technology to quell an outbreak.

Take for instance in in the Spring of 1998, there was a Salmonella outbreak.  We have come to regard these types of outbreaks as being connected with food borne origins, like grandma’s potato salad at the picnic, or tainted meats that quickly get pulled from store shelves after a recall.  But in the case of this 1998 event, it was neither.  And it took some brain work to find the devil in the details.

It was a data entry specialist and a lab worker with the Illinois Department of Public Health who noted an unusual upturn in the number of infections caused by the Salmonella agona bacteria, which is not that common.  During a cross search of Salmonella serotypes and agona serotypes the culprit was identified as a toasted oat cereal.

A type of technology available at the time, called gel electrophoresis, yielded a match between the cereal, the production line from the factory where it was processed and samples of the patients affected.

In all, more than 400 people in 21 states were affected by this outbreak, but only one person died of the 40 percent who became ill or  hospitalized.  Had the health department personnel not seen this aberration, the results could have been much worse.

Another term we have come to know besides Salmonella, is E.coli.  In 1999, at a Labor Day party in Menard County hundreds were sickened by an E.coli outbreak.

Illinois Department of Public Health officials used a sophisticated genetic testing technology for the first time in the state in which they were able to positively pinpoint where the location of the tainted beef was served and all of the persons affected.  IDPH officials used the DNA makeup of the E.coli found in the beef and matched it up with stool samples from the sickened people.  It turned out that the cow that was slaughtered for the party, and others cows from that same herd, were infected with the E.coli that made the humans ill.

In all, a total of 329 persons from 3 states, Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri, were affected.  In Illinois, the sickened people turned up in 12 different counties.

These two events, from 1998 and 1999, illustrate the importance yet of the interaction between human analysis and contemporary technology to quickly identify the source of ,and the sickened of, an outbreak.

You can listen to Chris Schwemlein's radio story here: