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Contagion On The Couch: CDC App Poses Fun Disease Puzzles

Armchair disease detection at its best: <em>Solve The Outbreak</em> lets you figure out what sickened dozens of kids at a "seemingly innocent birthday party."
Screenshot from Solve The Outbreak/Centers For Disease Control and Prevention
Armchair disease detection at its best: Solve The Outbreak lets you figure out what sickened dozens of kids at a "seemingly innocent birthday party."

Disease detectives are kind of the rock stars of public health.

They travel around the world, on a moment's notice, to track down an Ebola outbreak in Uganda or stop a cholera epidemic in Haiti. And Kate Winslet and Lawrence Fishburne played them in the movie Contagion, for crying out loud.

So when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a free iPad app that lets you solve disease puzzles — a kind of CDC CSI — I was totally stoked to try it.

The gamelike app didn't disappoint. It's slick, polished and pleasing "edu-tainment," as my husband put it.

Solve The Outbreak simulates problems caused by three different contagions — two in the U.S. and one in Kenya – and takes you through the steps the CDC's disease detectives use to pinpoint the pathogenic culprit and stop it from spreading. Should you quarantine the sick? Order up more lab tests? Or perhaps slaughter a herd of sheep?

My favorite puzzle was "Birthday Party Gone Bad," which starts off with this scenario: "What is the worst thing that can happen at a 5-year-old's birthday party? Sticky fingers? Fights in the bouncy house? ... Usually, but after this party, these things would have been a welcome side effect."

Kids went home with stomach cramps and watery diarrhea. Was it the homemade ice cream or an unmentionable accident in the pool?

After downloading the app, I immediately solved all three outbreaks. And I craved more.

It was fun. And even though I feel like I live and breathe infectious diseases as a global health reporter, I learned something from the puzzles. Who knew you could catch a fever from raw mutton?

But how does the app stack up to real infectious disease games, like Pandemic?

For that answer, I turned to my husband, who is far removed from public health but more immersed in gaming than he'd care to admit.

He says the CDC app is much more educational than other outbreak games, and not as much fun. "It's mildly amusing," he cracks. "I might be tempted to play one more round."

The CDC came up with the app as an educational tool for teens, science teachers and young adults. Since its launch earlier this month, the app has an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5, based on 25 reviews at the iTunes Store.

A review from jmconde nicely sums it up: "I can feel the Epidemiologist growing in me now! Well done application and the most fun one could have while talking about diarrhea."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.
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