Where will the next big epidemic come from?
01 March 2013
by David Quammen
Would you believe I spent the past week blowing through a book on diseases (primarily caused by viruses) that cross over from animals to humans?*
Well, I did, and it was a fantastic read. The book in question was David Quammen's Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, it's 520 pages long, and yes, it's about disease and human pandemics, and I could not put it down.
This came as somewhat of a surprise, since I've looked at some of Quammen's other science/natural history books, and found them somewhat dull. So either this is just a subject that I find interesting (and I do), or he took his style up a notch in this one, or I didn't give his earlier books a fair trial. All possibilities.
To be specific, Quammen reports on "zoonoses"--diseases that are communicable from animals to humans (thanks, Merriam-Webster's). Here's some introductory information from Quammen:
"Ebola is a zoonosis. So is bubonic plague. So was the so-called Spanish influenza of 1918-1919, which had its ultimate source in a wild aquatic bird and, after passing through some combination of domesticated animals (a duck in southern China, a sow in Iowa?) emerged to kill as many as 50 million people before receding into obscurity. All of the human influenzas are zoonoses. So are monkeypox, bovine tuberculosis, Lyme disease, West Nile fever, Marburg virus disease, rabies, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, anthrax, Lassa fever..." (p. 21).
So yes, a real upper subject. But Quammen makes it very compelling, tracing the emergence, outbreaks, study and history, and other aspects of a variety of zoonoses, from Hendra to Ebola to influenza to HIV. It's quick-paced, particularly for science writing, and there's a ton of fascinating things to learn here. Did you know, for instance, that HIV might have "spilled over" from animal to human hosts as early as 1908? I didn't.
It's a really fascinating book. I wouldn't read it right before you get on an airplane, or if you live near a lot of bats. Otherwise, do have at.
*Although, check out that freaky cover. Mr. CR is reading it now, and I've had to request that he put it down facedown, because the cover freaks me out.