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Doody's Review ServiceReviewer: Erick Snellman, PhD (The Citadel)
Description: This book examines 12 important diseases from a historical perspective. Each chapter provides a description of the disease, its origins, symptoms, how it is acquired, treatment, control measures, and its consequences. In these sections the author examines the impact of disease on humans, from social perceptions and stigmatization of those afflicted to changes in populations due to emigration and immigration. The discussions center on periods when each disease was at its height, as measured by either the greatest number of people affected (the plague), political upheaval (porphyria and hemophilia), or great changes in demographics (late blight of potato). The author also offers insights about the consequences of each disease addressing areas of lessons learned, current status, and chances for future outbreaks.
Purpose: The purpose is to present a historical account of disease and its impact on society. The book examines the nature of disease and the human response in terms of attempts to control its spread and limit its consequences. By focusing on the past, the author sets the framework for discussions on lessons learned so we may better understand how we may respond to future outbreaks.
Audience: The book is intended for general readers who have an interest in history and biology, biology students, and teachers who wish to include more information on the history and impact of disease in their courses. It should also be useful in microbiology courses as a supplemental reader as 10 of 12 diseases covered are microbial pathogens. The author, professor emeritus at the University of California, Riverside, has published numerous scholarly papers and four books in this area.
Features: Most of the diseases are caused by microbial pathogens, but two are genetic disorders (porphyria and hemophilia). Historical accounts of bacterial disease include cholera, the plague, syphilis, and tuberculosis. The impact of viral epidemics is illustrated by smallpox, yellow fever, the 1918 influenza pandemic, and HIV. The impact of disease on a population dependent upon subsistence farming is illustrated by the Irish potato blight, in which the causative agent was a water mold. Interestingly, this is also the only disease included that is not a human pathogen, but its effects were to drastically change the demographics of the United States in the mid-19th century. The story of the devastating effects of the protozoan parasite which causes malaria is also told along with the efforts to control it and its impact on Africa. The book is well written, but does not contain any figures or tables, data presentation, or any illustrations.
Assessment: The book is easy to read and enjoyable. However, it tends to repeat information from the author's previous book, The Power of Plagues (ASM Press, 2006). Many of the diseases discussed in that book (the plague, malaria, cholera, and syphilis, tuberculosis, and smallpox) appear here and in familiar format. There is extensive overlap in the author's general discussion of epidemiology or spread of disease in populations and the sections on the basic reproductive ratio of the disease (the disease multiplier, Ro), as well as explanations of how each disease is transmitted. However, in this book, the author focuses more on the changes and the impact of disease upon society, making it a nice complement to the previous work and a good read for those interested in the whole story behind some of the world's most tumultuous times.