Dread: How Fear and Fantasy have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to the Avian Flu

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The average individual is far more likely to die in a car accident than from a communicable disease…yet we are still much more fearful of the epidemic. Even at our most level-headed, the thought of an epidemic can inspire terror. As Philip Alcabes persuasively argues in Dread, our anxieties about epidemics are created not so much by the germ or microbe in question—or the actual risks of contagion—but by the unknown, the undesirable, and the misunderstood.

Alcabes examines epidemics through history to show how they reflect the particular social and cultural anxieties of their times. From Typhoid Mary to bioterrorism, as new outbreaks are unleashed or imagined, new fears surface, new enemies are born, and new behaviors emerge. Dread dissects the fascinating story of the imagined epidemic: the one that we think is happening, or might happen; the one that disguises moral judgments and political agendas, the one that ultimately expresses our deepest fears.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Over the centuries, rumors about epidemics have often been even more infectious than the epidemics themselves. Philip Alcabes's persuasive Dread demonstrates that disturbing thesis with winning clarity. Drawing on instances of "dread spread" from Greek and Roman times to the present, he shows how the fear of strangers and our apparently inbred tendency to prematurely identify causes have combined to stigmatize entire groups of innocent sufferers. This significant book deserves a crossover readership far beyond its nominal history-of-medicine audience.
From the Publisher

Helen Epstein, author of Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa
"In this richly detailed and fascinating book, Alcabes explores the meaning of epidemics throughout history, and what our fears of them tell us about ourselves. Like Susan Sontag, he reminds us just how hard it is to see these diseases for what they are."

Barry Glassner, author of The Gospel of Food and The Culture of Fear
“Exceptionally insightful and persuasively argued, Dread is at once a chronicle of the uses and (more often) abuses of the term epidemic and an antidote to the modern tendency to transmute fears of strangers and societal and personal failings into diseases.”

Harriet Washington, author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present
"Dread is an insightful education in how art and science inform each other in a cultural synergy that, even today, keeps us from discerning what is medicine and what is myth. The word “genius” has been debased by frequent use, but this is a work of undeniable genius in the most exalted sense. What Stephen Jay Gould did for natural history, Philip Alcabes has done for public health."

SEED Magazine, April book pick
“With its analysis of historical and modern epidemics, both real and imagined, Dread convinces that the fear can be worse than the disease.”

Publishers Weekly, STARRED review 3/30
“An engrossing, revealing account of the relationship between progress and plague.”

BBC’s Focus Magazine
“The horrifying notion of epidemic disease is so ingrained that you will be halfway through this intriguing book before you realize just how hysterical we all are.”

“(This) spookily timely book, published just as the swine flu panic kicked in, does a brilliant job of exposing the social factors behind our dread of disease and encouraging healthy scepticism towards claims of ‘epidemics’… Dread is an invaluable – dare I say, infectious – read.”

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

According to Alcabes, an essayist and expert in public health, "epidemics fascinate us"; hopeful projection or not, his study provides enough gruesome details and unexpected sidelights to captivate history fans. Looking first at the plague that swept Europe in recurring waves from 1300 to 1700 ("the model for the epidemic"), Alcabes sorts through the widespread confusion over its cause and method of transmission. Rubbing up against theories of "contagion, intemperate air, poisoned water, astrological influence" and "deviltry," accounts of brutal pogroms and apocalyptic dread, Alcabes makes the science behind the history-as in a description of infected fleas regurgitating the plague bacteria into a victim's system-just as gripping. Cholera reached epidemic proportions in England in 1831, when efforts to clean sewage from the streets poisoned the Thames; at the time, experts were focused on foul air, not foul water. Turning to the present, Alcabes chastises the use of "epidemic" for behavioral issues like obesity or teen sex, and the panic over isolated events like the Anthrax outbreak (only 22 cases), while 9 million cases of tuberculosis go untreated every year. Showing how even epidemics hinge on societal attitudes and expectations, Alcabes presents an engrossing, revealing account of the relationship between progress and plague.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586486181
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 4/13/2009
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Philip Alcabes is an Associate Professor of Urban Public Health at Hunter College of the City University of New York and Visiting Clinical Associate Professor at the Yale School of Nursing. He has written op-eds for the Washington Post and contributed essays to The American Scholar, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He lives in the Bronx, New York.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 26, 2009

    Timely Book about public health crises (like Swine Flu)

    This book should give everyone pause and help calm the current panic over swine flu. It is a history of how people and governments have manipulated our fears of disaster. Usually someone gains when we all worry so much about extraordinary problems that we don't stop and keep to the basics--good standard of living for everyone. I found this argument really enlightening. Though it is counter-intuitive, Alcabes really persuades, with lots of facts and really good arguments. He covers SARS and AIDS and Obesity and Autism, and more.

    By the way, this book is listed as psychology, but it is actually infectious diseases and public health

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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