Understanding the Past and Future of Infectious Diseases: A Book Review of Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague

Claire Styffe

Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance is a worthy read for anyone interested in either an account of infectious diseases or future global health threats alike.   While the text is very in depth, it cannot be called narrow; with reports on a range of infectious diseases from Bolivian Haemorrhagic Fever to Hantavirus to Lassa fever, the author succeeds in providing a rich and comprehensive guide on multiple major illnesses.  Drawing tales from a number of different countries including Brazil, Zaire, India and the United States, Garrett creates an account that examines infectious diseases from a truly global point of view.

The Coming Plague presents pathogens and viruses in an interesting and detailed manner, but the true strength of the book lies in its ability to showcase the human side of global health.

“The Coming Plague” by Laurie Garrett

Chapters are devoted not only to the mechanisms of the disease, but more prominently to the outstanding efforts of the “infectious disease cowboys” [1], the researchers and the nurses who interacted first hand with the illnesses.  Reports are written in an almost story-like manner, with physicians and patients presented like characters and dramatic cliffhangers at the end of chapters.  At times, it is easy to forget that this text is not fiction, but rather a detailed work of research that took ten years to compile [2].  While the sheer size of The Coming Plague may first appear daunting, it reads easily and is often interjected with humour, making for a book that is not only highly informative, but also one that is extremely enjoyable.

 

While The Coming Plague was published in 1994, much of the information and insights provided still hold true over twenty years later.  Garrett’s warnings about unsterilized needles, antibiotic resistance and unpurified drinking water are not echoes we can resign to the past, but rather public health challenges we face today.  In fact, what was once considered controversial when first published is now viewed as conventional [3].

 The Coming Plague is a text that masterfully intertwines both infectious diseases and human endeavour, providing a rich framework for understanding not only our past efforts combatting communicable diseases, but also those we must take in our future.

 

Claire Styffe is a U2 student currently pursuing a degree in Cell and Molecular Biology as well as Urban Systems Geography. She is fascinated by global health and has a particular interest in preventing and minimizing the spread of infectious diseases.  

References

[1] Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), 29

[2] “The Coming Plague”, Laurie Garrett, http://lauriegarrett.com/the-coming-plague/

[3] Ibid.

The Biography of Malaria: Sonia Shah and “The Fever” Book Review

Vaidehi Nafade

It bears no explaining that malaria is a major global health issue today. According to WHO, in 2015 there were over 200 million cases, and 400,000 deaths, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa (1). WHO has set ambitious goals for the elimination of malaria, but it is a difficult disease for many reasons – and it has always been.

"The Fever" by Sonia Shah

“The Fever” by Sonia Shah

Sonia Shah says it aptly in her novel, “The Fever: How Malaria has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years”: “Despite the fact that we’ve known about malaria since ancient times, and have the drugs, killing chemicals, and know-how to avoid it, something about this disease still short-circuits our weaponry” (2). “Fever” tells the story of malaria, from its evolution into a parasite from a photosynthesising predecessor to its unrelenting presence in today’s world and the public health problem it poses.

Despite being factually dense, “Fever” does not read like a typical nonfiction. The editorialized style of writing can seem jarring at first, especially in comparison to academic texts or articles – but Shah’s journalistic style brings the book to life, making it into a true biography of Plasmodium. The result is a genuinely enjoyable, relatively light read, despite its heavy topic, that remains accessible to the global health professional or enthusiast alike.

However, even malaria experts will likely find some new information in “Fever”, as its greatest strength is its thoroughness. In true investigative journalist style, Shah’s research for the novel is expansive. While she covers the basics of malaria, such as the different species of the parasite and its clinical features, Shah does not stop there. The novel also describes malaria’s effects on shaping the Roman Empire or colonial America (greater than you would expect), its contributions to humankind’s genetic evolution (much more than just the infamous sickle cell gene), and the pharmaceutical struggle from quinine to artemisinin. It provides a long history of public health interventions and a persisting cultural divide between Western health authorities and malaria-afflicted countries that makes public health interventions so difficult.

Ultimately, “Fever” provides a captivating and detailed story of malaria that will leave any reader with a greater appreciation of a very formidable parasite, and an intellectual concern for how public health will tackle this parasite next.

vaidehi cropped

 

Vaidehi is an U3 pharmacology student and an avid reader and writer. Her passion for global health stems from an interest in immigrant and refugee health and cross-cultural medicine.

 

References

1. “Malaria Fact Sheet,” WHO, accessed June 13, 2016. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs094/en/

2. Sonia Shah, The Fever: How Malaria has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years (New York: Picador, 2010). 9.

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