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'Get me the NIH'

It's the beginning of a new television season, which must mean it's time for the next in a line of television series glorifying the fast-paced, glamorous lives of scientists. NBC has brought us Medical Investigation, in which public-health specialists take to the streets (and the skies) to sleuth out the source of unexplained illnesses. In the series premiere aired earlier this month, the crack team of MDs and PhDs descend upon New York City to figure out why a dozen people have fallen ill and a

By | September 27, 2004

It's the beginning of a new television season, which must mean it's time for the next in a line of television series glorifying the fast-paced, glamorous lives of scientists. NBC has brought us Medical Investigation, in which public-health specialists take to the streets (and the skies) to sleuth out the source of unexplained illnesses. In the series premiere aired earlier this month, the crack team of MDs and PhDs descend upon New York City to figure out why a dozen people have fallen ill and are literally turning blue. In the storyline, which appears to borrow quite liberally from the late Berton Roueche's true-to-life account of "Eleven Blue Men" in The New Yorker, the team traces the condition's source to a saltpeter-filled saltshaker at a greasy-spoon diner, and saves the day.

Overlooking the scientific inaccuracies that riddle such shows – you know, mass spectrometry and geno-type analyses turned around in minutes – one can't help wonder why this delta force of attractive, well-groomed medical gumshoes consistently identifies themselves as being not from the CDC or WHO, but from the NIH. "Back off," they seem to say to local health officials, "We're from the NIH," as if it were the public health equivalent of the FBI.

We're not the only ones who noticed; Rick Weiss of The Washington Post found the choice of the NIH strange as well. "It's a fudge, I admit it," Chris Conti, NBC's senior vice president for drama development told The Post. "There are futzes here and there. It's television." And why not? After all, if the CDC had written the pilot, it might read like the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, each plot twist followed by an Editor's Note. Just as well, it could read like the Journal of NIH Research.

But maybe the NIH can do more in a medical emergency than request a federal appropriation of money to fund a long-term study to determine the best effective treatment of nitrite poisoning. Perhaps some underground special-operations force resides in the sub-subbasement of Building 10. And in response to epidemiological emergencies, they take to the NIH copter, as team leader Stephen Connor (played by a brooding Neal McDonough) does from the field of his son's baseball game. NIH spokesperson Don Ralbovsky states for the record that no such special-ops force exists. Such emergencies would likely be handled by local health officials, or if federal involvement became necessary, the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service.

The show's producers may not be the only ones confused about the purview of the CDC. Last month in Stockholm (see "No news is not good news"), a group of European infectious disease lab chiefs took swipes at plans for a European CDC that they were concerned would be a "lame duck" because it would lack the authority of the CDC.

Kathy Harbin, a CDC spokesperson, says that the agency doesn't feel the least bit slighted that the NIH was named in the TV show. Future shows will likely mention CDC involvement, she says. And both agencies have created Web sites to explain the real facts behind Medical Investigation plotlines http://www.nih.gov/health/medicalinvestigation/index.htm and http://www.cdc.gov/communication/eis.htm.

If the television reviews are any indication, they won't need to update these sites for long. In the meantime, you can tune in on Friday nights. If the show doesn't last, you can chalk it up to the NIH's – sorry, the CDC's – attempts to get Americans off their couches to exercise.

- Brendan A. Maher

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Mettler Toledo
BD Biosciences
BD Biosciences