Long before Maphead’s Book Blog came to WordPress, I had quite the affinity for books about infectious disease. It probably started years ago when I mentioned to a medical professor my fondness for Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. Upon hearing this he eagerly recommended I also read Berton Rouche’s 11 Blue Men. After following his advice and being pleased with his recommendation from there I moved on to other books like Plagues and Peoples, Virus Hunter, The Forgotten Plague and The Great Mortality. In retrospect it seems over the last few years that my diet of these books has dropped off a bit, with just Inside the Outbreaks, The Ghost Map and The Fever featured on my blog.
Don’t ask me why but for whatever reason, I recently found myself once again hankering for books about polio, cholera, tuberculosis and the like. So, during my last visit to the public library I picked up a couple of books which I hope will feed this reawakened desire. One of those books I picked up happened to be Jeanette Farrell’s Invisible Enemies: Stories of Infectious Disease. Published in 2005 as a revised and updated second edition of her original 1998 book, Invisible Enemies is one of those straight-up, no-nonsense kind of books written probably as an introductory text. But it’s also more than that. Thanks to Farrell’s clear writing and her ability to deliver the right amount of information in order to adequately cover the subject matter at hand without being dry or tedious, this book works for novices and seasoned readers alike.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned from reading this book is that most pandemics are the unintended consequences of human actions. For thousands of years cholera was endemic just to India, but thanks to fast-moving steamships the disease circled the globe in the 19th century. While the Mongol Empire unified much of Eurasia and created a reliable East-West trade route, that same conduit allowed the plague infested fleas to hitchhike on rodents across the continent from East Asia to Southern Europe. Later, from that part of the world sailing ships, aided by advances in maritime technology, spread infected fleas and rodents from Italy to the rest of Europe. AIDS was restricted to the interior of Africa until a combination of truck drivers, prostitutes and modern highways helped spread the disease throughout the continent. Later, commercial jet travel would allow those infected to bring the disease to the rest of the world. (Things went from bad to worse in the US, where a combination of government inaction and sexual irresponsibility would have disastrous consequences.) Lastly, diseases like smallpox and malaria were absent from the Western hemisphere until their introduction by conquistadors and slave traders.
I’m hoping this book will be followed by others of a similar nature. During that recent library visit, in addition to grabbing Invisible Enemies I also helped myself to Gerald Callahan’s Infection: The Uninvited Universe, The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age by Nathan Wolf and Medical Mysteries: From the Bizarre to the Deadly . . . The Cases That Have Baffled Doctors by Ann Reynolds and Kenneth Wapner. With those three library books plus my own copy of David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic sitting on my desk waiting to be read I’m guessing this wont be the last book about disease featured on this blog.