DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're used to hearing about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as it investigates foodborne illnesses and flu epidemics. Well, now more than 140 scientists and other staff at the CDC have turned their attention to a new outbreak - lung injuries and deaths caused by vaping. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris visited the CDC in Atlanta to learn more.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: The title of the CDC's main publication pretty well sets the tone for the agency - it's the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. And the agency has been at this often grim business for more than 70 years.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Every year, hundreds of thousands of people suffer from communicable diseases, and many die unnecessarily from preventable infections.
HARRIS: Old newsreels looping in the CDC's museum help tell the story from malaria and polio to HIV and, since the 1960s, tobacco.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Today, we're talking to a bona fide smoking addict. As you can see, we've concealed his identity...
ANNE SCHUCHAT: Our centers are responding to issues all the time.
HARRIS: Dr. Anne Schuchat, the agency's chief deputy director, says the vaping lung injury investigation fits squarely into the CDC's mission. But in another way, she says, it is unusual.
SCHUCHAT: I think it's pulling at everyone's heartstrings because many of the individuals are previously healthy, a lot of them are young, half of them are under 25 years old, and some of them are dying.
HARRIS: Given the scope and the mysterious nature of the illness, the CDC set up an incident command center to coordinate its response. By elevating an issue like this, Schuchat says the CDC has directed about 140 scientists and other staff to step away from their normal work and to put their full attention on the crisis.
SCHUCHAT: We have staff, you know, epidemiologists, communication experts, laboratory staff and then deploying our disease detectives to work on this issue which, you know, six months ago, they were not focused on.
HARRIS: In this case, the incident command center has been set up at the CDC's second campus, Chamblee. It's headed by Dr. Dana Meaney-Delman who is not actually an expert on tobacco or vaping.
DANA MEANEY-DELMAN: Actually, I'm an obstetrician gynecologist. So it is not about the expertise in the particular field.
HARRIS: So why would they tap on your shoulder?
MEANEY-DELMAN: (Laughter) This is my fifth emergency response I've done at CDC in my nine years here. I would liken it to a conductor of a symphony.
HARRIS: So do you have, like, a control room with flashing lights and things like that?
MEANEY-DELMAN: (Laughter) I do not. I would like it if you could arrange that (laughter).
HARRIS: Instead, her team has taken over a conference room and brought in a bunch of laptops. As she experienced as the incident manager for Zika, it's clear what needs to be done. First is to be aware that something unusual is afoot.
MEANEY-DELMAN: And then quickly we need to establish whether it's happening elsewhere.
HARRIS: For vaping lung disease, that played out quickly over the summer - first cases in Illinois and Wisconsin but soon reports from across the country. Next question is the cause.
MEANEY-DELMAN: We've narrowed this clearly to THC-containing products that are associated with most patients who are experiencing lung injury. The specific substance or substances we have not identified yet. But even when we do, that's not necessarily going to help with public messaging.
HARRIS: That is alerting the public to the hazard. It's like how the CDC was able to help people avoid AIDS even before they knew the identity of the virus causing the disease. As that message is getting out, chief data scientist Macarena Garcia has the unenviable job of gathering data about the outbreak from states, each of which has its own way of doing things.
MACARENA GARCIA: It's a very diplomatic type of experience because you have to negotiate with all of the state partners and territories to access data in a way that can be meaningful when you aggregate it nationally.
HARRIS: That's been a big lift, and it's kept her up at night, she says. Meanwhile, a team of physicians has been working to define the disease, and labs on this campus are studying lung tissue samples from people who got ill after vaping. They're also analyzing gases and vapors from suspicious products to hone in on the exact chemical or chemicals responsible for the injuries.
Schuchat, the CDC deputy director, says the science part of this investigation is not the biggest challenge.
SCHUCHAT: Some of the underlying factors that have brought us here are going to be very difficult to deal with, you know? If it's a point source contaminated food, clear-cut, recallable product, it's very different than an outbreak that we believe is due to behaviors that may be quite common in products that for whatever reason seem to be quite risky.
HARRIS: Risky, hard to quit and likely elicit if not downright illegal. That's why she and her colleagues are reluctant to say just how long it will take to bring this frightening situation under control.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
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