The new box-office hit Contagion focuses on a team of ‘disease detectives’ as they race to stop the spread of a deadly airborne illness that kills within days. Some of the film’s stars, including Kate Winslet, portray members of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS). The EIS is a unique, two-year, post-graduate program of service and on-the-job training for health professionals interested in the practice of epidemiology. We recently spoke with CAPT Douglas Hamilton, the director of the 160-person EIS and a Commissioned Corps officer since 1987.
What role does the Commissioned Corps play within the EIS?
CAPT Hamilton: We currently have 164 people assigned to CDC or state/local health department positions as EIS officers. Of the 164, 97 are Commissioned Corps officers. The EIS program is regularly one of the largest groups of newly commissioned officers each year, with the majority of them being physicians.
How long have you supported CDC EIS?
I came to the CDC for the two-year EIS program in 1991 after working with the Indian Health Service as a Commissioned Corps officer for several years. I served my two-years with the EIS in Connecticut and then moved to Atlanta where I completed my residency through the CDC. I worked in different branches of the CDC until 1998, when I took the EIS director position.
Which characters in the movie Contagion would most likely be Commissioned Corps officers in a real life disease investigation?
Kate Winslet is a CDC EIS officer in the movie and she is deployed to investigate the disease. She would most likely be a Commissioned Corps officer. Laurence Fishburne’s role is based on part on Commissioned Corps officers RADM Anne Schuchat and RADM Ali Khan, both of whom fill leadership roles within the CDC.
Did officers in the EIS program or other Commissioned Corps officers provide consultation on the movie?
Yes. At least two current EIS officers were involved and RADM Schuchat provided significant consultation.
Do Commissioned Corps officers within the EIS program wear their uniforms when deployed for disease investigations?
Yes, in most cases officers deploy in their Commissioned Corps uniform. There are times when a uniform is counterproductive and may not be worn, such as an investigation of TB in an illegal immigrant community.
What do you see as the benefits of the EIS program?
It’s a fantastic opportunity to learn about public health through hands-on work with real world problems. EIS officers can affect real world problems that impact hundreds if not thousands of people. Also, it’s unique in that officers can focus on public health for two years without dealing with the administrative tasks that come with most jobs.
How does one apply to the EIS?
There is an online application available on the CDC EIS Web site. The application period opens in May and closes on September 1.
If someone is interested in joining the EIS team as a Commissioned Corps officer, what steps should they take?
Once accepted into the EIS program, they should then apply to the Commissioned Corps. This is a separate application process for which EIS will help facilitate the paperwork. We periodically have PHS officers transfer from another PHS duty station, such as IHS, but for most the EIS program is usually their first job as a Commissioned Corps officer.