Science fiction and fantasy
Microbe: Are We Ready For The Next Plague?
by Alan P. Zelicoff and Michael Bellomo
On the topic of SARS, the book explores the Chinese government's attempts to cover up the scale of the outbreak, and the effect this ultimately had on infection rates. There's a lot about politics because disease control is unavoidably linked to the way governments respond. The chapter on smallpox goes further, detailing an outbreak in Aralsk in the 1970s that the authors believe points to the existence of a Soviet bioweapons programme. With suggestions of more cover-ups we're getting into the realm of shocking conspiracy theories. However this sensationalist treatment of the subject matter, combined with a very accessible writing style, does mean the book is a fast, captivating read.
The scares continue with information about the prions that cause BSE and other diseases. Prions don't even have DNA or RNA, so they're very strange pathogens indeed. There are also details of the hardy and unusual bacteria responsible for Legionnaire's disease. The stories of these and other infectious diseases are illustrated with a good deal of historical depth, making for some colourful accounts.
The middle chapters are devoted to the flaws in diagnosing infections, fixing the public health system, and methods of surveillance and reporting. These sections are a little repetitive. The authors then go on to discuss the pros and cons of different vaccination methods. They then illustrate what might happen in a real outbreak, using a couple of fictional scenarios. These are perhaps a little redundant given the wealth of real-life examples there already are in the book, but they drive the authors' points home.
Microbe: Are We Ready For The Next Plague? is a suitable introduction for non-scientists to the issue of disease control. In spite of the slightly alarmist tone it takes it's got plenty of practical ideas for limiting the spread of disease, and it explains all the basics clearly. This is a useful, highly readable book.
2nd March 2011
If you like this, try:After Dolly by Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield
After Dolly the sheep made headlines the scientist behind her creation discusses the implications of her birth.
Toxin: The Cunning Of Bacterial Poisons by Alistair Lax
How bacterial toxins break down our defences so effectively, and the stories of people who have struggled to understand them.