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Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague, 1894-1901

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Plague Ports
The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague, 1894-1901. By Myron Echenberg. (New York University Press, New York and London: 2007. Pg. xvi, 349. B & W Illustrations, Maps.) ISBN: 978-0-8147-2232-9.

Reviewed by Auggie Moore - April 17, 2009

Plague Ports is an intriguing study that looks at the global impact that bubonic plague had in urban areas from 1894-1901. Although it was not known at the time, this was the third bubonic plague pandemic. It was destined to take the lives of more than fifteen-million people, and it did not officially end until 1950. In the annals of medical history, this is seemingly a forgotten epidemic, yet one that we cannot afford to overlook. In Plague Ports, Myron Echenberg, a professor of History at McGill University, presents a sweeping overview of the epidemic from both a historical and scientific perspective. He also highlights the valuable lessons that are to be learned from this deadly pandemic and how these lessons can be applied to modern day threats such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and Bird Flu.

This study focuses primarily on ten of the hardest hits cities, located on five different continents. The cities in question are Hong Kong, Bombay, Alexandria, Porto, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Honolulu, San Francisco, Sydney, and Cape Town. Echenberg follows the plague as it circled the globe, looking at each city individually, in a more or less chronological order, based upon the arrival of bubonic plague in each city. In each case, he discusses the arrival of the plague in each port city, how it was identified, the public health efforts taken to combat it, and the public's reaction. Within the course of this study he examines how different cultures and different medical philosophies dealt with the epidemic, and the intersection of Western medical ideas with that of Buddhist, Ayurvedic and Islamic medical practices. He also illustrates how changing ideas about infectious agents and bacteriology were to have a profound effect upon the public health measures that were marshaled to treat this unexpected medical disaster.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is, in my opinion, Echenberg's examination the role played by the correlated isms of imperialism and colonialism played in the spread of the disease and in the failure to properly treat those infected. Echenberg examines how unjust notions about race, class, as well as the medical establishments unfamiliarity with the bubonic plague, contributed to the spread and long duration of the pandemic. He also looks at the political machinations and medical rivalries that were major factors in the global failure to halt the spread of the disease.

Perhaps it is by studying the failures that occurred during this pandemic, more than anything else, that offers the best lessons for those planning on how to deal with the next pandemic. Plague Ports is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking books that I have read this year, and it is one that I will likely reread as I delve deeper into the fascinating and alarming history of the third bubonic plague pandemic. This book is essential reading for anyone working in the field of public health as well as politicians and others working to plan a strategy to deal with the next pandemic - no matter what its source. This book is also well suited for university classes dealing with the history of plagues and diseases, public health, history of medicine, or any related field. This book will also interest general readers with an interest in medical history, public health, or disease ecology.

Related Reviews:

The Power of Plagues, by Irwin W. Sherman.
A comprehensive and accessible overview of the history of epidemic diseases, how they are transmitted, the social and political response to epidemic diseases both in the past and in the present, and how modern civilization is at just as much risk from epidemic diseases as were our ancestors.

Timebomb: The Global Epidemic of Multi-Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis, by Lee B. Reichman and Janice Hopkins Tanne.
An riveting account of the rise in Tuberculosis cases around the globe, and the increased threat posed by multi-drug-resistant strains of TB.

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