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Why don’t people join together to fight against infectious disease more vigorously? This book was written by a woman who, for reasons incomprehensible to me, has sought out some of the most disease-generating places on Earth to find out why. She ends the book by swimming in Vibrio bacteria-laden water … “Still, while the water was warm, the air was warmer, and it felt lovely to slip off the side of the boat into its fluid embrace. The bay is not deep, but it took a while before I reached the soft silt blanketing its floor. Above, the cholera-rich waters displaced by my dive whirled around, glittering darkly.”

It makes more sense to me personally to avoid infectious diseases, but Sonia Shah in her new book Pandemic, primarily about cholera, seeks them out and as the quote above illustrates, swims in them. Here is Sonia’s TED talk on her previous book about Malaria. In this new book she discusses at some length the downside of her seeking out a more intimate relationship with Vibrio cholerae, and some undiagnosed, and perhaps undiagnosable diseases that brought a year-long diarrhea to her personally.

She visits the remote fishing village of Belle-Anse, on the southwestern coast of Haiti, which takes eight hours to get to, via a questionable bus, a ride on a motorcycle, then on a tiny motor boat. She was reporting on a Twitter-based tracking method set up as an exploratory system for predicting epidemic progress, that might be used in coping with worldwide epidemics. On the way out of town her boat passed the floating corpse of a child whose parents had been trying to escape the cholera-infected town when their boat capsized.

Early in the book we are back in 1835 in the Wall Street area of Manhattan where the city water supply is so polluted, because it is being pumped directly from under the latrines, that a cholera epidemic kills many and terrifies New York. It was many years before it was understood that it was polluted water rather than foul-smelling air that caused cholera, even though the water tasted and smelled horrible. Reasonable people drank tea, not knowing that it was boiling that made it safe, and not the tea extract.

Cholera was chosen as the central disease for this book, but it covers many others such as flu, Ebola, AIDS, MERSA, SARS.

Sonia Shah is a boots-on-the-ground, feet-in-the-muck investigative reporter who goes where it’s dangerous to go in search of the truth.

 

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