Today, Phenomena gains a phenomenal new member: Maryn McKenna. If you’ve read her books such as Superbug or kept up with her blog of the same name, you know that nobody does a better job of analyzing the threats we face from infectious diseases. To celebrate the launch of “Germination,” her blog here at Phenomena, I asked Maryn some questions about how she got here, and where she’s headed.
You gained the nickname “Scary Disease Girl” from fellow journalists. What was the path that led you there?
A complicated one–the kind that makes sense in retrospect but seemed random at the time. I started as a newspaper reporter, with a just-out-of-grad-school specialty of conducting investigations by digging through documents. The first investigation I did, though, was not science but finance, about bad savings and loan organizations in the Midwest. That attracted the attention of editors at larger papers, and I moved through a couple of other jobs doing investigative work.
Oddly, all the investigations after that first one were about public health — cancer clusters, drug abuse, Gulf War Syndrome — so after a few, I had turned into a public-health reporter. On the strength of them, I was asked to apply for what was at the time the best public-health reporting job in the country, covering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, from its home base in Atlanta. The instruction when I was hired was, “Just get inside there and tell us who these people are,” and so I spent 10 years talking my way into every investigation I could. That’s really where the nickname originates, because the stories I ended up telling were the big outbreaks of those years: the anthrax attacks, the arrival of West Nile virus, the international epidemics of SARS and H5N1 flu.
That experience led to my embedding with the CDC’s disease-detective corps, the Epidemic Intelligence Service, for a year, and writing a book about them, Beating Back the Devil (2004); and one of the investigations in that book provided the germ of my next book, Superbug (2010), which is about the global rise of antibiotic resistance.
Before joining us at Phenomena, what have you been writing about diseases, and where?
I left newspapers in 2006 to freelance, so, like most science journalists, I write for a variety of places: Wired, Scientific American, Slate, Atlantic — a range. But for the past five years, the core of my scary-disease identity has been a blog at Wired, also called Superbug. At that site, which was one of the launch entries at Wired’s “all-star science blog” platform, I’ve explored emerging infections, the recurrence of problems we thought were beaten, the difficulty of getting rid of infections we thought we could eradicate, and the mistaken health and social policies, and personal mistakes, that allow disease organisms to flourish.
What’s the scariest disease you’ve ever written about?
I suspect people expect me to say something like, “Ebola!” — but while Ebola is a dreadful disease in its worst manifestations, and devastating to West Africa, I personally find it less frightening as a public health threat than more widespread, less-noticed infections. There was a point where I was seriously unsettled by the possibility of a pandemic resulting from the global spread of avian flu; I remember calling up a friend, another disease reporter, and confessing that for the first time ever, what I was learning was frightening me. And I find it stunning that the insect-borne disease Chagas is now so endemic in the southwestern United States that it is a risk in blood transfusions and organ transplants.
But the problem that most worries me now (and was the subject of my recent TED Talk) is the unchecked spread of antibiotic resistance. The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, a project in England, estimates that if we can’t get things under control, resistance will kill 10 million people per year by 2050, and cost $100 trillion. That’s definitionally scary to me.
A year ago, you began writing for “The Plate,” a group blog at National Geographic about food. How did you get interested in food as a subject to write about?
I came to writing about food through writing about food problems: foodborne illness, and also antibiotic overuse in food production, and the drug resistance that results. That opened a door to writing about things that are not strictly related to disease: the evolutionary history of wheat, for instance, and how the names of foods enshrine colonialism. I’ve always been fascinated by food; as a young business reporter I talked my way into places doing small batch chocolates and cheeses and beer. And in the years since, it’s become a topic that essential to our culture. But my goal in writing about food is always to link it back to larger issues: sustainability, economic pressure, social justice — as well as disease.
You’ve written for a number of newspapers and magazines. Is there anything different about blogs for you?
The pleasure and terror of blogs is how much they require speaking in a personal voice and engaging with the audience in an unfiltered way. We take this for granted now, but for a traditionally trained journalist, taught to stay out of the story, it was challenging to learn. But in compensation, I appreciate the opportunity to be incremental in bringing a story to my audience. I don’t always have to have the full chronology, and all the arguments, in one post; I can present it to readers piece by piece and be confident they will stay with me for the unfolding. That’s particularly welcome since all of us here are telling stories about science, which changes from study result to study result, so we can contextualize and reframe post by post.
What plans do you have for Germination?
I’m excited to bring the various pieces of my blogging life to one site (though my food-related writing will still be flagged at The Plate as well). I hope to be covering the full slate of public health and infectious disease topics: scary diseases, little-noticed infections, cool microbiology; the complexity of big campaigns such as polio eradication, and the challenge of our widely distributed food-production system. Readers should expect coverage of new research results, interviews with little-known scientists, glimpses of the underbelly of the food system, and some whimsy.