Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen

 Science writer, David Quammen’s new book Spillover: animal infections and next human pandemic focuses on how diseases pass on from wild animals into humans - a process called spillover.

His account covers such zoonotic diseases as SARS, AIDS, bubonic plague, Lyme disease, West Nile fever, Marburg virus, swine flu, bird flu and Hendra virus.

Sounds very dry and boring, but don’t be fooled as Quammen is a fantastic writer, story teller and funny to boot.

In his NYT review, Dwight Garner gives this exampe of Quammen's gallows humour.
“Advisory: If your husband catches an ebola virus give him food and water and love and maybe prayers but keep your distance, wait patiently, hope for the best — and, if he dies, don’t clean out his bowels by hand. Better to step back, blow a kiss and burn the hut.”
This book reads like a thriller as Quammen traces the beginnings of spillovers, the initial medical responses to contain them and then the often frantic scientific sleuth work to discover the causes.

He also interviews an array of imminent scientists and goes on site with them to capture bats, birds and various other animals. 

What Quammen does throughout the book is to emphasis the way in which the increasing human encroachment on what was once wild habitats is a key factor. This is a salient point that he returns to at the end of the book.

I’ll admit there are moments in the book where I struggled with science and did skim through some of the more technical accounts of DNA and RNA. Quammen is sympathetic to his reading, noting in one particularly dense paragraph that:
“If you followed all that, at a quick reading, you have a future in biology.”
I did find Quammen’s explanation of retroviruses very easy to understand and his chapter on the search for the original cause of AIDS one of the best parts of the book. 

Overall, this is a very approachable book and Quammen's writing is wonderfully lucid, clear and compelling.