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Disease Detectives

Disease Detectives Fact Sheet [PDF - 566 KB]

Photograph of two workers with hazmet suits on working in the field.

What do disease detectives do?

Disease detectives work to get to the root of health problems in a community. Whether the problem is a measles outbreak on a small college campus, a global influenza pandemic, a national surge in violence, or a localized rise in cancer clusters, disease detectives work to determine how the problem started. In the U.S., CDC’s disease detectives are sent at the request of states and work closely with state and local officials during the investigation.

Who are disease detectives?

To solve health problems, disease detectives from various health fields must work together. Disease detectives often consist of:

  • Epidemiologists
  • Laboratory scientists
  • Statisticians
  • Doctors and other health care providers
  • Other public health professionals

Photograph of a physician giving a child a shot.

The process of disease detecting

Like investigators at the scene of a crime, disease detectives begin by looking for clues and gathering information about what happened to cause illness. Disease detectives have various jobs and may work in different places, such as laboratories where they look for viruses or bacteria in blood samples or cities and towns where there are diseases. Disease detectives interview people who are sick and then try to figure out how and why they became sick.

Disease detectives ask questions to find out how a particular health problem was introduced into a community:

  • Who is sick?
  • What are their symptoms?
  • When did they get sick?
  • Where could they have been exposed to cause of the illness?

Disease detectives then use what they have learned to prevent others from getting sick. The information they gather may be used by:

  • Doctors to determine the best treatments for illnesses
  • Agencies to advise consumers on preventative measures such as food preparation
  • Companies or regulatory agencies for possible recall of products

Disease detectives at work

Photograph of a lab worker.

  • Disease detectives were able to determine that a single African dwarf frog breeding facility in California was the source of a salmonella outbreak from investigation and laboratory findings between 2009 and 2011.
  • During the 2001 inhalational anthrax outbreak among U.S. postal workers, disease detectives investigated the route of contaminated envelopes and how workers became infected.
  • Disease detectives found an outbreak of E. coli was linked to raw sprouts produced at a farm in Germany in 2011. The sprouts were taken off the shelves and the number of cases associated with the outbreak substantially decreased.
  • Disease detectives traced illnesses to undercooked hamburgers from a fast–food chain when more than 200 people in Washington State developed similar gastrointestinal symptoms in 1993. Warnings to cook beef until it is no longer pink halted the outbreak and prevented further transmission.
  • In 2009, investigators studied an outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter and were able to recall products and warn consumers.

To learn more about disease detectives and the CDC, visit www.cdc.gov or call 1–800–CDC–INFO.

  • Page last reviewed: March 19, 2014
  • Page last updated: March 19, 2014
  • Content source:
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