Via The New York Times, an assessment of Sonia Shah's new book: Review: ‘Pandemic’ Explains How to Host the Perfect Pathogen Party. Excerpt:
Yet once you get past the unfriendly statistics of the book’s introduction, and once you get past the chilling biology lesson of Chapter 1 — which explains how these sneaky organisms jump from one species to the next — Pandemic is far less terrifying, perhaps because errant microbes are only one component of what makes a pandemic a pandemic. They’re the “known unknowns,” as Donald R. Rumsfeld might put it. The other components are known knowns, which by definition are at least familiar: filth, political corruption, increasing population density and mobility.
Ms. Shah uses cholera, one of the most obdurate of pandemics, as a paradigm to explain how new deadly pathogens both emerge and circulate. If you already know something about cholera — if you’ve read Steven Johnson’s excellent The Ghost Map, say — you may find yourself disappointed; she covers, inevitably, some of the same ground.
But this structuring conceit is also useful for simplifying an unwieldy topic. A discussion about the East India Company’s expansion into the wetlands in the Bay of Bengal, which exposed many Indian workers to the tiny crustaceans that carry vibrio cholera, becomes the perfect segue to discuss how modern deforestation in Guinea encouraged more interaction between people and fruit bats, which are thought to carry Ebola.
“As wetlands were paved over and forests were felled, different species came into novel, prolonged contact with each other,” she explains. From a pandemic’s point of view, the more mingling among species the better.
For those who don’t know much about the history of cholera, Ms. Shah’s dense, compact book is a decent primer, explaining how new forms of transportation encouraged the spread of this waterborne disease, as did rising urban density, as did political corruption. (It was Aaron Burr who thwarted an attempt to bring clean water from the Bronx River into New York City — as if this man needed any more negative publicity.)
Perhaps my favorite chapter, though, is about waste — or, as Ms. Shah puts it, “the rising tide of feculence.” Nothing seems to awaken the muse in Ms. Shah like excreta, the ideal delivery system for all kinds of diseases. In each gram is up to one billion viral particles; yet somehow, Christianity shunned water-based rituals for centuries. Martin Luther went so far as to eat a spoonful of his own feces every day.
In 19th-century New York City, sanitation was extravagantly grim. “By 1820,” Ms. Shah writes, “privies and cesspools covered one-twelfth of the city.” Human and horse waste covered the streets and seeped into the groundwater; it was sometimes sold as fertilizer for “sewage farming” in Brooklyn and Queens.
The same conditions that drove cholera — overcrowding, corruption, poor hygiene, expanded transportation — are what drive pandemics today.