On Being a Germ Detective
Guestpost by Gwen Lowe
Even after more than 10 years of being a public health germ detective, my heart still races when the phone rings in the middle of the night.
Sometimes it’s a false alarm, a routine “just to let you know” call, after which I roll over and go back to sleep. But occasionally, it’s the real thing. The scenario that I dread on my watch: the one that may lead to many people falling seriously ill.
And then, just like a police detective, I scramble an expert team to investigate. We all have different roles. Some search for clues, others carry out interviews, but we will do whatever it takes to solve the mystery and protect the public.
We’re looking for the source of the germ and how it might be spreading. The source might be a person, or a thing like food or drink, or a place that people have visited; so we need to know what ill people were doing at the time they could have been infected.
Germs are odd little things. They can spread in mysterious ways, or lie dormant for a while. Sometimes someone can pass on a germ without having any symptoms. This means new cases of rare infections spring up without any direct connection to other people with the same illness. Working together, we have to solve all these puzzles if we are to stop the outbreak.
To do this, dedicated Environmental Health Officers ask ill people about where they have been and who they were with. These Officers inspect places of interest, looking at what risky things might have allowed cross-contamination. They have legal powers to act if they find something serious. Microbiologists culture the germ and analyse it to see if the subtype in different people is the same, especially if there’s no other obvious link between them.
As Chair of the team, what I’m always asking myself is: ‘Where has this come from? Where can this go to? What can we do to stop it spreading?’ Then there’s the question that keeps me awake: ‘How bad can this get and what have we missed?’
Sometimes, what we’re hunting down and trying to control isn’t a germ. Occasionally it’s a serious chemical contamination, or a cluster of mysterious illness for which no cause can be found. Then we really have to draw on our expertise and that across the UK and Europe to deal with the situation.
We keep going for as long as necessary, putting our other lives on hold, until the day comes when it’s all over. Finally we can stop, go back to routine work and catch up with e-mails. But always we monitor for an odd little blip in the data streams, or unusual report by phone: the first warning of the next threat.
It’s a rare chance to regroup, to recover by doing other things. Some of the team play sports, but me? Well, I write stories for children….
ALICE DENT AND THE INCREDIBLE GERMS by Gwen Lowe
is out now in paperback
(£6.99, Chicken House)
When Alice Dent gets a cold, she has no idea how much trouble it’s about to cause. Because this is no ordinary cold: it comes with some seriously weird sideeffects. For a start, Alice can’t stop giggling and every animal she meets sticks to her like glue! But when the mysterious Best Minister for Everything Nicely Perfect and his scary masked henchmen come to take her away, Alice realizes her troubles are only just beginning…