He has been called “our best science writer”, which is probably true.
Reviewed by Nancy Ironside.
This may be the toughest, the most unpleasant and the most significant book I have ever read – all 710 pages of it.
It is primarily about viruses that have an animal reservoir – zoonotic viruses. Veterinary science and human medicine have converged to give us new insights. Veterinary-¬minded medical experts discover and track diseases that spread across species. Again and again Quammen leads us to the edge of current knowledge -then asks questions. The answer is” nobody really knows”.
Quammen goes into detail about many diseases. You may know a lot about Lyme disease, but you probably don’t know the half of what is known, and you will find out what is not known. (A lot.) I learned that it is white-footed mice that host the ticks that cause Lyme disease (not deer as originally postulated).
You will learn a lot about all the diseases he describes, for example, SARS, West Nile, Bird flu, AIDS, Ebola, also Hendra and Nipah. (In Bangladesh, Nipah, spills out of bats and gets into humans and kills about 60 percent of the infected humans.)
Did you realize that tent caterpillars have intermittent die offs because of a virus?
He takes us on his travels to significant infection sites, often in the remote parts of Africa – fortunately, the book provides maps. We learn that the pandemic strain of HIV was from one chimp into one human in the southeastern corner of Cameroon in central Africa back as early as 1908 or earlier,
In caves, he bravely wanders through guano in his bare feet, and helps catch infected bats. He also watches monkeys being butchered for meat This is all interesting, but the vivid details are gruesome.
Modern science, unavailable at the time, could have told us a lot about the Spanish Flu of 1918. The book has a lot of molecular biology, molecular phylogenetics and things like that, – difficult and important.
Although this book was published in 2012, it is really relevant now.
If you are up to it, you will be well rewarded. But it is frightening since we are in the midst of the Covid19 epidemic, that he predicted in 2012.
The Orillia Public Library has a copy of this book.