He Tries to Find Where Killers Hide
WALLACE RHODES, scientist-engineer. He probes around in the unknown, where deadly diseases lurk. His professional card lists Ph.D.’s in epidemiology and engineering. His combination of credentials is unique. But so is his work, as you will see.
I am following him up and down a bewildering labyrinth of corridors through countless floors of the CDC—the Centers for Disease Control, near Atlanta, Georgia. Doors off these white concrete halls lead into laboratories and inner sanctums of scientists devoting their lives to trying to track down and exterminate the elusive killers of man. Sometimes their triumphs, sometimes their failures, make headlines the world over.
Now we are on the roof of an enormously high building. Rain splashes down in huge drops just as we gain the shelter of a penthouse an acre square. Hot, unpleasant air repels us. Our eardrums are overwhelmed by a din of fans and motors. We are dwarfed in a cavernous domain where air ducts are the size of corridors.
“You might say an equipment room like this is part of my laboratory,” Rhodes explains. “While other scientists start shaking test tubes, the engineer part of me starts looking for epidemics in the HVAC—the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems of buildings. Sometimes an epidemic breaks out in a hospital. Doctors may think they have some disease quarantined, but all of a sudden people come down with it all over the place.”
How did it spread? In all kinds of institutions, from schools to meat-packing plants, in hundreds of places over the past two decades, Rhodes has tracked down causes, generally relating to air conditioning. But he could not find what he’s looking for if he did not know something about bacteria as well as engineering.
“How would you begin to track down a disease?” I asked.
“First, I would put on this mask.”
The black head mask he demonstrates swallows his face. It transforms him into a figure out of science fiction. “This mask is 99.97 percent efficient.” The words come out muffled. “It screens out particles down to three tenths of a micron. One micron is about one 25,000th of an inch.” I try to imagine a germ tiny enough to squeeze through the mask.
The Hunt for Pontiac Fever
Years ago, masks like this helped Rhodes and two assistants escape Pontiac fever. All the other scientists from the CDC who preceded them to Pontiac, Michigan, were struck down by the epidemic. On that memorable weekend 95 out of 100 people who were exposed came down with the unknown but violent sickness.
All you had to do to catch Pontiac fever was to set foot inside a certain building. It was as though the building itself was diseased. Of all places, it was a community health center, a place of medical and dental clinics, an X-ray department, and the like. Along with patients coming to be treated, the doctors and nurses and technicians themselves were taken with violent chills, fever, headaches, acute muscular pains and other pneumonia-like symptoms. But no problem from any of the other buildings.
“I was on vacation in Florida when they called me to Pontiac,” Rhodes recalled. “The epidemic was already several days along. When I checked the data it appeared that the only time people entering the building did not come down with the plague was when the air conditioning was turned off. Come Monday, after it was turned on again, once more people started getting sick.” But not Rhodes and his assistants, with their masks and other safety attire.
The problem, however, was more subtle than just the air conditioner’s blowing air through the building. Rhodes suspected that the water sprayed over the evaporative condenser coils was contaminated. Through a leakage in the duct system, mist from this water was getting into the circulating air. Tests were made, but it took days before his suspicions were confirmed: guinea pigs exposed to that basement water came down with Pontiac fever. Still, what was the culprit? They had yet to isolate the germ from the water.
“For three years,” Rhodes continued, “microbiologists ran tests on the guinea pigs. They were no nearer discovering the cause of the disease than the day they started. Some tests continued over the years. Finally they placed the test tubes of blood serum from the human victims of Pontiac fever in storage freezers and literally put that part of the case on ice.”
Tracking Down Legionnaires’ Disease
Eight years went by. During an American Legion convention in Philadelphia at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, 221 people came down with something as sudden and mysterious as Pontiac fever. However, this time 34 died.
Whatever it was, it was coming from inside the hotel. Doctors at first called it an “explosive outbreak of pneumonia with no apparent cause.” Twenty-three epidemic intelligence officers from CDC, Rhodes among them, worked with scores of state and local health officials in Philadelphia. “The nearest I could ever determine,” Rhodes said, “the source this time was from the cooling towers.”
It took six months of intensive laboratory tests, using techniques improved and advanced over those used for Pontiac fever, finally to turn up the killer bacterium. The cigar-shaped germ was named legionella pneumophila.
Almost a year went by before it occurred to researchers to thaw out some of the Pontiac fever specimens, now nine years old, and compare them with L. pneumophila. They concluded that whatever caused the epidemic in Pontiac caused the one in Philadelphia—only in the latter case 34 people died.
“Why,” Rhodes ponders, “did people die in Philadelphia but none died in Pontiac?” The question still bothers researchers.
Breeding Grounds for Epidemics
Since legionellosis bacteria were discovered, scientists have concluded that the disease in one form or another has been around all along. “Here in the United States,” Dr. Rhodes said, “there are 2.4 million cases of pneumonia each year. Only about two thirds of these cases can be linked to known viral or bacterial agents. What causes the other 800,000 cases?”
“Legionellosis,” he goes on, “is recognized in only a fraction of the pneumonia-like cases. Scientists wonder if some of the unknown agents are linked to legionellosis but have yet to be detected.”
“Are you saying,” I broke in, “that legionellosis may break out around us at any time?”
He nods. “It might reach us from soil excavation. From water pollution, including our drinking water. From the air. We live and we sicken and die in a polluted world.”
“You mean there are unknown diseases lurking around us wherever we turn?”
“They’re the ones we’re still looking for. They may attack us, and do attack us, at any time. Known forms of legionellosis have been identified in more than 40 states, in Canada, in Australia and in about every country in Europe. But so have the unknown forms of pneumonia and other diseases shown up, and in far greater instances.”
Confronting Earth’s Deadliest Killers
He turns to point in another direction toward an isolated building. “I helped design and test that building for CDC some years ago. It is the Maximum Containment Lab—MCL. Specimens of the deadliest diseases on earth are being studied there right now. Lassa fever . . . Green African monkey disease (Marburg virus).” He tolls off some of the exotic diseases. “People probably never heard of them when the black plague and influenza were the terrors of mankind. These are violent contagions of our times. Men over there in MCL are risking their lives right now trying to corner these killers.”
I hear myself saying, “Could we take a peek inside that place?”
He grimaces. “You’re about as close to that building as you’ll ever get!”
The CDC is a kind of watchtower on the alert for outbreaks of contagious disease epidemics all over the earth. It probably knows more about what’s going on in this field than any other scientific nerve center.
After 20 years of searching for hundreds of mysterious contaminants in man’s environment, after designing HVAC systems adopted in all kinds of institutions, and while presently studying the possible harmful effects of volcanic ash, Dr. Rhodes makes this observation: “Mysteries keep outnumbering discoveries and probably multiply faster than solutions.”—Contributed.