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.  


[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.

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