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The war on germs is being fought on many fronts—from the skirmishes with disease-carrying mosquitoes that cross oceans hidden away in airline wheel wells to the high-profile battle against terrorists wielding deadly bioweapons. Today’s bold headlines would have us believe that the biggest threat comes from ...
The war on germs is being fought on many fronts—from the skirmishes with disease-carrying mosquitoes that cross oceans hidden away in airline wheel wells to the high-profile battle against terrorists wielding deadly bioweapons. Today’s bold headlines would have us believe that the biggest threat comes from bioterrorism. But don’t underestimate Mother Nature, perhaps the most savage bioterrorist of all. Assisted by the increasing ease with which people—and the germs they carry—move across international borders, she’s an effective force to be reckoned with, a key player on this battlefield. As author Madeline Drexler makes clear, we’d do best not to ignore her.
Human beings and the pathogens that attack them are crossing paths more and more frequently, particularly as modern life grows increasingly complex. Whatever the infectious agent may be, whether it’s pandemic flu, foodborne illness, a debilitating disease carried far and wide by biting insects, or some new microbial horror we have yet to detect, keen surveillance and rapid response are really the only weapons in our arsenal.
Secret Agents looks at today’s new and emerging infections—those that have increased in attack rate or geographic range, or threaten to do so—and tells the stories of scientists racing to catch up with invisible adversaries superior in both speed and guile. Each chapter focuses on a different threat: foodborne pathogens, antibiotic resistance, animals and insectborne diseases, pandemic influenza, infectious causes of chronic disease, and bioterrorism, including the latest information on the public health threats posed by anthrax and diseases such as smallpox.
Based in part on material collected from the Forum on Emerging Infections hosted by the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C., Secret Agents is ultimately as engaging as it is disturbing. Drexler’s thorough survey of the field of infectious disease, supplemented by extensive interviews with today’s top researchers, yields a compelling portrait of a world engaged in a clandestine war.
Emerging infections are among the many secret ties that bind the world into an organic whole. We know that infectious disease is an inescapable part of life, but we need to begin thinking globally and acting locally if we are to avoid the menace of a catastrophic outbreak of some new plague. Secret Agents sounds a clear and compelling call to take up arms against the organic predators among us.
The book reads like a perfect multicourse meal, attractively presented and served with the right amount of clinically correct, surprisingly up-to-date information on dozens of conditions. Drexler's Dorothy Parker-like bon mots and asides are the perfect sauces to compliment the feast. ... Secret Agents is a most delightful read, and, like other very special treats, it should be read slowly, savored, and remembered.
Being a newly published author normally makes you a coveted guest at your friends' dinner parties, at least for a week or two. Writers, after all, can unreel tales of their topic when the conversation gets slow.
The trouble is, my new book -- Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections -- is about the many and diverse infectious horrors that modern life has handed us. What's worse, I am all too willing to inform my dining companions about the disease-causing bacteria and viruses lurking in our homes, workplaces, backyards, children's day care centers, even perhaps in the very food that is now being passed around the table.
My monologue usually begins when I arrive and notice the salad being finalized for display. "Have you washed the lettuce?" I blurt out. "If not, we may be at risk for E. coli O157:H7." If some smart-aleck snorts in disbelief, and tells me that E. coli is found only in raw hamburger, I'll list the dozen or so recent outbreaks in carrots, apples, coleslaw, unpasteurized juices, and, yes, lettuce.
Once we are settled in at the table, I am often moved to comment upon the pathogenic properties of poultry. "Ever notice that it's hard to buy a chicken these days without Salmonella or Campylobacter?" Of course, I don't mean to cast gloom on the occasion, so I'll add a helpful consumer precaution. "Always cook your bird until the juices run clear," I say, tipping the serving platter to demonstrate my point.
At this point, the guests may lapse into silence. I sense an opening for a new subject. "How many of you leave your kids in day care?" After this informal poll, I'll breezily mention that these facilities are "microbial cesspools" -- that phrase always gets people's attention -- teeming with Shigella, Streptococcus, and who knows what else.
"That's why we have antibiotics," someone might say. Of course, I quickly correct this careless delusion. "Actually," I'll respond, "we're using too many antibiotics in this country. Bacteria are becoming resistant to everything we throw at them. If we keep this up, we'll be back in the Dark Ages of medicine."
Now the plates are being cleared for dessert. Inwardly, I'm hoping that the final course does not consist of fresh raspberries from Guatemala -- surely everyone remembers the Cyclospora epidemic from a few years back? To banish that from my mind, I'll turn to current events. "If you were a bioterrorist, which weapon would you deploy: anthrax, smallpox, or plague?" My dining companions stare at me helplessly. Since I don't want them to feel embarrassed for not knowing how to answer, I describe the strategic pros and cons of each.
By now, the mood is unmistakably subdued. But I consider it a teachable moment. "Emerging infections are evolution in action," I'll explain. "Never underestimate an adversary that has a 3.5 billion year head start."
Someone tosses down a fork in exasperation. "Can't you talk about anything besides your book?"
My mind casts about for fresh conversational tidbits. "Have you heard," I ask, "the latest theories on global warming?" (Madeline Drexler)
Posted June 21, 2010
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