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The Power of Plagues

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The Power of Plagues. By Irwin W. Sherman. (American Society for Microbiology ASM Press, Washington, DC: 2006. Pg. ix, 431.) ISBN: 978-1-55581-356-7.

Reviewed by Herbert White - February 18, 2009

The history of epidemic disease is a varied and engrossing field of study, and it is a field that has significant implications for the future. In The Power of Plagues Irwin W. Sherman has written a powerful and enthralling overview of not only the history of epidemic disease, but also the evolution of diseases, the disease processes, and current antimicrobials, vaccines, and therapies currently used in the control and treatment of many modern diseases. Written in plain English, this book is equally accessible to general readers as well as historians and scientist.

Each of the chapters in The Power of Plagues are self-contained, and you can profitably read this book straight through, or jump around picking whatever subject happens to strike your interest at the moment. Within the scope of this study, Sherman details various major disease outbreaks. He tackles both ancient and modern maladies, most of which still plague us today, including tuberculosis, malaria, influenza, typhus, cholera, syphilis, leprosy, the black death (bubonic plague), sleeping sickness, river blindness, yellow fever, and more. Parasitical diseases such as hookworm, blood flukes (Schistosomiasis), and Guinea worm infections are also discussed. Diseases caused by nutritional deficiencies such as pellagra, beriberi, scurvy, and rickets, which were once thought to be caused by 'germs' are also covered in this comprehensive overview of the history of plagues throughout history. He also covers new disease such as HIV-AIDS, SARS, Mad Cow Disease, and West Nile Virus. Smallpox is examined on two fronts, both its role in history and its eradication, as well as the threat posed by the possible reappearance of this dreaded disease through a terrorist act, or via its use as a bioweapon.

Sherman is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Riverside and is currently a Visiting Scientist in the Department of Cell Biology: Institute for Childhood and Neglected Diseases at the Scripps Research Institute. He is also a prolific writer, with more than 150 scholarly papers to his credit, as well as numerous books, including Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World. He has brought his years of experience and education, as well as deep interest into the field of infectious diseases to the writing of this book. His writing is engaging, and he writes with a flowing narrative style that will keep you glued to the page as you journey through this edifying examination of epidemic disease throughout history.

In addition to learning about the historical and social ramifications of epidemics, Sherman also provides an accessible overview of what diseases are, how they are transmitted, and how they have changed over time. He examines the role that modern sanitary practices as well as modern medicine and vaccine programs have played in helping to control these epidemic diseases, and just how prevalent many of these diseases still are, killing and maiming millions each year. Sherman also explains how, no matter how distance these plagues appear, it is only a matter of time before another major pandemic strikes mankind.

Epidemic diseases, in the past, have markedly altered the course of human history and they are likely to do so in the future. A firm understanding of the disease process and various disease vectors is essential in understanding the extent of the threat posed by these epidemic diseases. As well, by learning from past outbreaks, modern man can better prepare for future outbreaks. As such, The Power of Plagues is essential reading for anyone with a professional or personal interest in epidemic diseases, its history, and potential threat for the future. This book will prove accessible to not only general readers, but also historians, scientist, politicians, public health officials, and students of all ages. The book's endnotes and the brief bibliography that Sherman has included will prove a valuable resource for anyone seeking to delve deeper into a field that has had, and continues to have, such an significant impact on human civilization and culture.

Related Reviews:

Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World, by Irwin W. Sherman.
Discover how twelve diseases, namely porphyria, hemophilia, the Irish potato blight, cholera, smallpox, bubonic plague, syphilis, tuberculosis, malaria, yellow fever, the great influenza pandemic, and AIDS, changed the world and the very real threat they still pose for the future.

Public Health Law: Power, Duty, Restraint, 2nd Edition, by Lawrence O. Gostin.
Newly revised and expanded, this is a comprehensive introduction to the field of public health law, and the role that the government does, and should play in protecting the health of its citizens.

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