Saturday, December 30, 2017

Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah

Now that flu season is in full swing, and our flu shots aren't doing us much good this year, it's a good time to talk about all the disgusting diseases that can kill you. But let's up the stakes and focus on diseases that spread worldwide, we're talking cholera, Ebola, SARS...pandemic level contagions.

Sonia Shah's book, Pandemic, focuses heavily on cholera, tracking its meager beginnings to its reemergence today. Shah believes that by studying cholera, many other world diseases can be understood. But she doesn't just talk about cholera, she uses it as a vehicle to segue into other diseases, explaining what exactly they are, how they spread, and how environmental or cultural factors contribute to this spread.

And it's this last point I found most interesting. She talks about how China's wet markets contributed to the spread of SARS, or how public sanitation, or lack thereof, contributed to cholera's spread.

Among social and economic factors, Shah talks about how a foreclosure crisis in South Florida contributed to an explosion of Dengue fever. The foreclosures allowed mosquitos to breed in abandoned swimming pools and gardens out of sight of mosquito inspectors and homeowners.

I particularly enjoyed her discussion of how the influence of Christianity basically made people dirtier than their ancient counterparts, who had elaborate water systems and rituals. She talked about how Hindus, Muslims, and Jews also have water based hygiene rituals, but Christians, just had to sprinkle a few drops of holy water to be "clean."

"The most holy Christians, with their lice-infested hair-shirts, were among the least washed people on earth."

And the European descendants who came to America had forsaken these ancient rituals, consuming up to 2 teaspoons of fecal matter in their food and drink a day.


And don't get her started on global warming. We are protected from many fungal pathogens that decimate amphibious populations because of the temperature of our blood, which is too warm for these pathogens to survive. But could a slow warming of the environment allow certain pathogens to soon tolerate the warmth of our blood?

She also had a great example of how the loss of biodiversity in bird species can influence the spread of human pathogens.

While this review from the New York Times suggests Pandemic doesn't offer anything new to the genre, and in fact falls short of relevant disease discussion, I suppose an uninformed person like myself just might find the book compelling.

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