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Viruses, Plagues, and History

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Viruses, Plagues, and History
By Michael B. A. Oldstone
(Oxford University Press: 2000. Pg. 240.) ISBN: 0195134222.

Reviewed by Fritz du Trey - May 13, 2001

Warning, if you are the type of person who hears about an illness and then thinks that you have it - don't read this book - it will give you a major case of the willies!

Viruses, Plagues and History provides an overview of a variety of viruses and their effect on man, both historically and in the present. It was written by Michael B.A. Oldstone who is a respected virologist at the Scripps Research Institute.

The book starts out with a brief look at what viruses are, and one chapter each on the principles of virology and immunology. He also explains what virolation and immunization are and how such treatments help prevent us from getting sick. It then goes on to look at viruses in history, such as smallpox, measles, polio and yellow fever. Oldstone devotes a chapter to each disease. He shows how each has devastated man with massive epidemics, and how these diseases might again rear up their heads to strike us down. He talks about the efforts taken to develop vaccines and how they have been used to eliminate diseases such as smallpox, and the current efforts to eliminate polio.

I especially found interesting his discourse on how viruses have shaped history. For instance, he discusses how viruses help expand the African slave trade. According to Oldstone, African slaves where highly prized in the Americas' because they were resistant to many diseases that the Europeans were not. Similarly, he talks about early efforts at biological warfare, such as occurred in American where Indians where purposefully given blankets used by smallpox victims, in the hope that the Indians would catch the disease. And that Napoleon primarily sold Louisiana to the U.S. because Yellow Fever was endemic to the area and it was not worth the effort to keep it.

After discussing these older, well-known viruses he advances to modern diseases such as AIDS, Mad Cow, Lassa Fever, Hemorrhagic diseases, Ebola, and Hanta Virus. He also talks about influenza and the possible reappearance of a deadly flu pandemic, like the one that occurred in 1918 that killed between 40-50 million people. The overview of these modern perils is not as in-depth as his treatment of older viruses, but it is nonetheless fascinating.

What is most interesting, and appalling, in the section on modern viruses is Oldstone's insights into the politics, and economics, of medicine. For instance he discusses why contaminated blood products are often sold, even when the seller knows that they are contaminated. Or why blood products are not always tested for contamination, even when the proper tests exist. The answer is simple, greed. It costs money to test the blood and if it is contaminated, it is a loss to simply throw it away!!

Throughout the book he discusses how viruses are spread, and how new viruses develop. More important, he shows that, in the age of airplanes and mass movements of people, just how easy it would be for a new, virulent disease to sweep around the globe in a matte of days. It is a scary scenario.

This is not the book to get if you want an in-depth analysis of viruses and plagues, but it is a good starting point. The writing, and the topic, are both intriguing. The text is geared toward non-scientists and the material is easily understood. If you want a more detailed knowledge of virology and immunology, you should read the first few chapters, otherwise they can be skipped without affecting the rest of the book.

Overall, I really liked this book. I was interested getting a general idea of what viruses where about, and their impact on history, and that is exactly what I got. I would be very happy to see Oldstone write a more detailed book. I liked his writing style and he conveyed a lot of technical information in a non-technical manner. This made the book very understandable to someone like me who knows very little about virology and immunology. Before reading this book I basically new that you got shot X to stop you from getting disease X. After reading this book I now know why the shot works and how vaccines were developed. In the case of measles, polio, and the like, I now have a basic understanding about how they shaped human history and the danger they could represent for the future...

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