Saturday, December 13, 2014

Spillover - A Book Review

I really enjoyed reading David Quamen’s book SpilloverAnimal Infections and the next Human Pandemic. It was a whirlwind tour of emerging viral and bacterial zoonotic diseases. Quanmen highlights the process of discovery for these diseases with many first-person interviews. Quanmen makes the field of disease ecology an exciting endeavor to be a part of, and although I’m currently struggling to memorize my negative RNA viruses, I love this stuff! Even though this book was published in 2012, it is amazing how fast things change in the viral world. It was eerie to read about previous Ebola outbreaks given recent events.

Quanmen manages to maintain an exciting narrative while still defining key terms and ideas. I like that he brought in a lot of basic science and defined important ideas like a superspreader, R0, and a few SIR equations. Although I welcomed the clarity that Quanmen brought to the stories, even with my knowledge of viruses, I could recognize that a few things are oversimplified. For example, Quanmen suggests that changes in the Pteropus bat species ecology was key in Nipah and Hendra emergence, which I don’t think is as well established as he suggests. Quanmen explains the viral tradeoff between virulence and transmission with the case of rabbit myxomatosis. However, he seems to suggest that the evolutionary trend of viruses is to become less virulent and more transmissible because the host can live longer. I don’t think this is widely accepted as the one and only successful evolutionary strategy for viruses. For better or for worse, simplifying is in the nature of popular science books, and overall, these points did not detract from my enjoyment of the material presented.

I found the ending of the book with its analogy of human to “melting” tent caterpillars a little corny, especially Quanmen’s return to his tree in Montana. For the entire book, it seems like Quanmen is trying to make the point that human and animal health are intertwined. However, unlike the caterpillars, humans are able to think their way out of things. This comparison once again singles humans out as unique, indicating that unlike the rest of the animal species, we can save ourselves from the “Next Big One.” Although perhaps a valid and important point to be made, I would have rather that the book level the playing field between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom and had that been the main take away point.

Despite my minor qualms with the book, overall it was a spellbinding and interesting read that definitely gave me a lot of food for thought.

-By Olivia

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