After reading on several blogs that Sonia Shah, author of The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World’s Poorest Patients had recently written a book on malaria I vowed to keep an eye out for it lest I come across it during one of my frequent library visits. Well, as luck would have it a few weeks ago while I was rooting through the new books at my local public library I found a copy of her book, The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years. After finishing it late last week I’ve concluded that overall, it’s a pretty good book. While it wasn’t the most engrossing and fascinating book about infectious disease(s) I’ve encountered it was probably the best book on malaria I’ve read. But then again, I haven’t read a lot of them.
Published in 2010, Shah’s book starts with malaria’s humble beginnings eons ago as a simple chlorophyl based life form to its evolutionary transformation into its current form: the parasite plasmodium. According to Shah the next half million years it would be a constant evolutionary arms race between human and parasite to see which creature could out-evolve the other. From there Shah chronicles humanity’s attempts to fight the disease through slightly more moderns means such as medicine, insecticides and other public health measures.
But I think what will really stick with me from Shah’s book is our frustrating inability to fully conquer this dreaded disease. The author does an excellent job looking at where things went wrong, including the misapplication of antimalarial drugs; over reliance of DDT (Shah, by giving evidence that mosquitos were showing DDT resistance as early as the late 1940s she debunks the claim made by DDT advocates such as Michael Crichton that banning the insecticide led to its resurgence); the aversion of the rich nations and big pharma to gritty, hands-on but necessary field work; and lastly our reluctance/inability to fight knock off counterfeit medicines currently being sold in the developing world.
As I sit in one of my favorite coffee shops writing this post I’m struggling to assign a final verdict to Shah’s book. While it didn’t rock my world, I thought her spirited and almost conversational approach, combined with her zeal as an investigative reporter thankfully set her apart from most if not dispassionate science writers. With a softcover edition of Fever released this week- and being featured along with four other books on NPR as the week’s “outstanding softcover releases“- Shah’s book will certainly get a wider audience. If that’s the case, I look forward to reading and hearing other readers’ opinions of this interesting and somewhat provocative book.