If somebody asked me to describe this book in one sentence I would say this is a collection of stories on classic shoe-leather epidemiology masterfully weaved for a layperson. It doesn’t however, mean that it is not an interesting read for people who know about epidemiology or are in the medical field. On the contrary, if you’re into the story of microbiology and especially zoonotic diseases you are in for a treat!
And thus starts a journey through these seemingly disparate but interwoven tails of zoonotic infections.
The story starts in Western Australia with the discovery of Hendra virus, to Congo where in 1996, Ebola was discovered, and then to the history and story of malaria. Another story traces the zigzag path of the Ebola virus in this jet-set era from Hong Kong to Toronto to the Philippines. The author then makes its way back to the 1930s Australia to tell the story of Q fever.
In “Going Viral” the story of the discovery of viruses is told in a masterly fashion. In fact, viruses are given preferred treatment in this book because of the way they are transmitted and because we don’t have any good medicines for them yet. These ubiquitous organisms are fascinating in terms of how they replicate, mutate, and finally elude treatments.
in “Celestial hosts” the author stresses that zoonotic diseases cannot be understood without scientists. Quammen relies on experts to teach him about zoonoses, and his narratives repeatedly stress the work of experts in identifying diseases, treating patients, and tracing the origins of particular illnesses. This story is all the more befitting in the COVID-19 era that brought the world to its knees when this infection broke out in late 2019. This book written before the COVIT 19 era, talks about bats that serve as initial hosts to certain viruses and are better suited than other mammals to spread these viruses because of their population density, because of their extreme variety of species and because of the fact that they can fly long distances. As noted above the story starts in Southeast Asia but fully develops in Bangladesh where the author and his friends are involved in tracking down the source of a viral infection from bats to humans.
Each chapter reads like a detective story; our protagonists roll up their sleeves, put on their detective (read: epidemiological) attire, and get their hands dirty spanning the globe from the jungles of Africa to the islands of Indonesia and every place in between. Intertwined are more details: the logistics, the human factor, the political red-tapism, the lifestyles of the natives, and the nerdiness and the sheer will power of the epidemiologists who are not afraid to go into regions that are rife with certain infections.
There are several important questions that are answered for the reader in a very non-technical way. For example, why are certain viruses more resistant to treatment than others? What is the difference between DNA and RNA viruses? and how are RNA viruses are more prone to mutations that lead to certain other interesting results? What is the significance of that for the life cycle of the virus and what is Eigen’s paradox?
For the nerdy ones among us who have the need to know the transmission modes and virulence factors for these diseases, the author gives us a simple basic formula with five crucial variable formula for virulence!
The utility of this book lies not only in his powerful storytelling for a layperson but also a fact-based narrative that is never bogged down by scientific jargon.
Globalism was the mantra of the day until recently when nationalism reared its ugly head in several places in the world at the same time. In these turf wars, one of the unintended victims is science, and as we have seen in the case of coronavirus pandemic, epidemiology. Funding to extremely important institutions like the WHO is being cut, institutions are under scrutiny, heads of these institutions are under social media pressure through rumors, half-truths, and at times outright lies. Some modicum of understanding how epidemiology works through collaboration between nations and institutions can help rectify the situation.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic Paperback – September 9, 2013
by David Quammen
Paperback: 592 pages
Publisher: Norton Trade Titles; Reprint edition (September 9, 2013)