Sunday, October 14, 2012

Book Review: "Spillover"


In Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (W.W. Norton, 2012), David Quammen provides us with yet another of his masterful books, combining a readable synthesis of scientific research with personal interviews, experiences, and ruminations. This time it's not on natural selection or island biogeography, but on zoonotic diseases (illnesses which pass from animals to humans). From Marburg to AIDS to Hendra virus and Nipah, Quammen explains how scientists think these diseases come to the spillover point (when the pathogen passes from one species to another) and explores the consequences.

The book is absolutely terrifying, even though Quammen takes pains not to oversensationalize his subject (in fact he takes exception to Richard Preston's having done just that in The Hot Zone). It's simply the facts of the case as Quammen lays them out: these diseases are nasty, they're lurking, and sooner or later, one of them is very likely to cause "the next human pandemic." Since I don't follow the professional virological literature, I was astounded to learn about the role of bats (particularly large Asian fruit bats) as reservoir hosts of these nasty bugs; Quammen devotes much attention to this, to great effect.

While Spillover gets just a touch repetitive over the course of the book (the text of which runs to 520 pages), I didn't actually mind all that much, since the repeated bits generally proved a useful refresher. This is a book which I hope will have a large audience: as Quammen notes, humanity is anything but a passive actor when it comes to disease evolution and spread: our actions over the last centuries and decades have laid the groundwork for much of what may come, and we are, whether we like it or not, completely entangled in the ecological processes of our planet.

Terrifying, yes, but read it. You'll learn something.

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