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Junior Disease Detectives is for teens — but I geeked out over it, too

Junior Disease Detectives is for teens — but I geeked out over it, too


Now where can I sign up for Disease Detective Camp?

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Art: Bob Hobbs and Kristen Immoor

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a graphic novel that uses trolls, aliens, and a county fair to explain how it investigates mysterious disease outbreaks. It’s meant for teens, but it’s a good read for adults, too

Nearly two dozen very serious subject matter experts from the CDC, the US Department of Agriculture, and the 4-H club contributed to Junior Disease Detectives: Operation Outbreak, which you can download on the CDC’s website. It’s a detective story with cover art that looks like something off a science fiction book from the 1980s. And even though I’m not their target audience, I tried it — and it’s actually a lot of earnest, educational fun.

The book opens with a group of students at a 4-H club meeting, prepping for the CDC’s Disease Detective Camp. They imagine fantastical outbreaks they’d fight: in one of these imagined scenarios, medieval archers defend a castle against an troll-like army of germs. In another, vaccines keep an astronaut safe on a space station contaminated with an alien virus.

Illustration by Bob Hobbs and Kristen Immoor

The opening sections are pretty cheesy, but the illustrations are exuberant. And these imagined scenarios turn out to be a clever way of laying the groundwork about immunology, exposures, and outbreak investigations. The medieval archer scene, for example, uses a “Most Wanted” poster to explain how the immune system recognizes and remembers germs. And the space station scenario uses a face oozing glowing green slime to explain how viruses can get into your body.

Illustration by Bob Hobbs and Kristen Immoor

Once those explanations are out of the way, the book doesn’t have to slow down as much to explain basic concepts. And the students embark on their own investigation in parallel with the CDC to track down the source of a dangerous flu virus that sickened one of their friends at a county fair. That’s where the “disease detectives” part of the story really starts — and even though it’s billed for junior disease detectives, I read all the way to the end, too.

In fact, it’s actually timely reading: the CDC just reported that four kids were infected with new flu viruses at agricultural fairs — and the culprits were the same as in the graphic novel. So the book gives readers a window into the science behind outbreak investigations like those. Sure, it’s delightfully cheesy, but that’s part of the fun.

There are more where it came from, too. Next on my list? CDC’s Zombie Preparedness graphic novel. Doesn’t hurt to know what’s out there.

Illustration by Bob Hobbs