The emergence of strange new diseases is a frightening problem that seems to be getting worse. In this age of speedy travel, it threatens a worldwide pandemic. We hear news reports of Ebola, SARS, AIDS, and something called Hendra killing horses and people in Australia--but those reports miss the big truth that such phenomena are part of a single pattern. The bugs that transmit these diseases share one thing: they originate in wild animals and pass to humans by a process called spillover. David Quammen tracks this subject around the world. He recounts adventures in the field--netting bats in China, trapping monkeys in Bangladesh, stalking gorillas in the Congo--with the world's leading disease scientists. In Spillover Quammen takes the reader along on this astonishing quest to learn how, where from, and why these diseases emerge, and he asks the terrifying question: What might the next big one be?
Who likes infectious diseases? Me, me! I love infectious diseases. I recently described Spillover as the happy intersection of reading for work (epidemiologist) and reading for pleasure (epidemiologists who work in hospital acquired infections, who aced infectious disease epidemiology coursework, and have a morbid curiosity regarding crazy zoonoses). As the human-developed world pushes farther and farther into more "exotic" locations they've never lived, either for habitat or agriculture reasons, the animal world is pushing back with stranger and stranger diseases. For the animals, these diseases are a bit like the common cold - a minor nuisance, rarely fatal - but once it gets into a previously un-exposed species - like a human - all bets are off. Mortality rates skyrocket. And this is where things like SARS or HIV or the newest recombination of influenza with the dreaded avian genes comes from. The borderland of the human-animal interactions and where viral genomes can recombine with glee.
Quammen has gone all over the world looking at past outbreaks to see if there is a way to predict where the next global pandemic will come from. Hint: it's unlikely that we can predict it. He has a great writing style and drops a lot of literary references so I think that might help non-science-y readers get through a few of the more technical chapters. On the downside, it kind of makes you not want to go in caves (bats, ick). Ever. Or leave your house again. And I sure as hell don't want to visit an animal market in Asia - holy damn.
Just for fun, I Instagrammed a number of underlined passages from Spillover - here's the first one; if you follow #spillover and #zoonosis I think you can find the others.
PS: Influenza season is coming so get your flu shots and wash your hands!