The Pandemic Century
February 1, 2020 2:32 PM - by Mark Honigsbaum - Subscribe

A medical historian narrates the last century of scientific struggle against an enduring enemy: deadly contagious disease. Ever since the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, scientists have dreamed of preventing catastrophic outbreaks of infectious disease. Yet despite a century of medical progress, viral and bacterial disasters continue to take us by surprise, inciting panic and dominating news cycles. From the Spanish flu to the 1924 outbreak of pneumonic plague in Los Angeles to the 1930 “parrot fever” pandemic, through the more recent SARS, Ebola, and Zika epidemics, the last one hundred years have been marked by a succession of unanticipated pandemic alarms. In The Pandemic Century, a lively account of scares both infamous and less known, Mark Honigsbaum combines reportage with the history of science and medical sociology to artfully reconstruct epidemiological mysteries and the ecology of infectious diseases. We meet dedicated disease detectives, obstructive or incompetent public health officials, and brilliant scientists often blinded by their own knowledge of bacteria and viruses. We also see how fear of disease often exacerbates racial, religious, and ethnic tensions―even though, as the epidemiologists Malik Peiris and Yi Guan write, “‘nature’ remains the greatest bioterrorist threat of all.” Like man-eating sharks, predatory pathogens are always present in nature, waiting to strike; when one is seemingly vanquished, others appear in its place. These pandemics remind us of the limits of scientific knowledge, as well as the role that human behavior and technologies play in the emergence and spread of microbial diseases.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis (1 comment total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Woof I picked a weird time to read this one. This is a pretty good overview of the last 100 years-ish and the major pandemics humanity weathered, and the medical communities response to them. As a whole the book holds up- but each chapter could have been expanded to a book in it of itself. The book makes the repeated and good point that in almost each event, xenophobia/racism was not helpful and in fact harmful and that working with communities was always the starting point to proper containment. Case in point- the most recent outbreak of Ebola got so bad in part because relationships between traditional chiefs/leaders and the modern governments/western and western trained doctors had broken down. In past outbreaks, doctors/government officials were polite and worked with these traditional leaders to try and make sure cases were sent their way and that locals understood traditional practices would only lead to more deaths. This meant as bad as past outbreaks got, they were contained. But in the last incident the traditional leaders were not respected and then conspiracy theories arose due to the local peoples mistreatment and so these chiefs hid sick people and told people to ignore the doctors- not out of malice but ignorance- and so many more died. The chapter on Psittacosis is also instructive because it was very easy for the US to ban imported parrots and was accepted easily because they were "foreign" birds. It took much longer for domestic bird breeding to be controlled and regulated because American's didn't want to believe the call was coming from inside the house as it were. The chapter on SARS is of course very timely. Anyways if you have the spoons for this one I recommend it, but considering what's going on maybe put this on a wish list?
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 2:40 PM on February 1 [3 favorites]

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