Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Not For The Squeamish
Last month I heard David Quammen speak at the Seattle Town Hall, and I nearly resolved to never eat, drink, or breathe again. Quammen is an acclaimed science writer who does his research first-hand, in this case on zoonotic diseases that cross from other species to humans. His book, SPILLOVER: ANIMAL INFECTIONS AND THE NEXT HUMAN PANDEMIC, is not for the squeamish.
It is, however, fascinating. Quammen has tramped through the jungle looking for gorillas infected with Ebola; bagged bats in search of the host reservoir for SARS; traced the path of Hendra in Australia as the disease made its way through horses, bats, and the occasional person; examined mice's ears for the ticks that cause Lyme disease. He does all this alongside working parasitologists, epidemiologists, and other scientists concerned about cross-over diseases.
This concern forms the theme of Quammen's book. As humans encroach more and more on the wilds where the host animals for these diseases live, there is greater and greater chance for the parasites (viruses, protists, bacteria, worms, and fungi) to move into us. Sometimes the original host animals are habituated to their parasites, and we are not. Sometimes there is more than one host involved. Sometimes we still haven't found the reservoir host (Ebola, for instance). Some time this could lead to the next world-wide pandemic. We've mostly dodged the bullet so far; Quammen argues that we cannot do so indefinitely.
Perhaps you have to be an alarmist or a science groupie to love this book. I am the latter, and I did. Quammen writes with grace, force, and clarity. Highly recommended -- just not right before dinner.