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Doody's Review ServiceReviewer: Kurt M. Boughan, PhD (The Citadel)
Description: The past successes of modern virology in the control or elimination of major diseases are charted in this book. It also explains present and emerging challenges from the viral realm to science and society, in a manner that is both marvelously clear to lay readers, yet detailed enough to please and fascinate the professional. This is a revised version of the book, first published in 1998.
Purpose: The author's first purpose is to describe the struggle of humanity to control viral agents from the advent of modern virology to the present. Although his account touches upon complex historical, political, and cultural issues, it is decidedly — and sometimes rather narrowly — from his own special perspective as an eminent American senior virologist and former consultant to the World Health Organization for the eradication of poliomyelitis and measles. He also aims to explain emerging and potential threats from the world of viruses and prions. Running throughout this survey of past, present, and prospective efforts to control viral diseases is his strong advocacy for comprehensive, centralized, and powerful public health regimes, preferably coordinated on a global scale. This advocacy is colored by a seductive but naive conception of biomedical science as a pure font of goodness and truth, a light that stands clearly apart from the benighted spheres of politics and culture, and that serves to correct and justify them.
Audience: Both educated lay readers and professionals in the biomedical sciences can profit from this book. For some of the latter, especially those working in fields outside of virology or immunobiology, it could serve as a handy pocket reference.
Features: Part I surveys viral infection as a major factor in modern western history and features two chapters that explain the principles of virology and immunobiology. Part II tells the success stories in the human struggle against the virus; i.e., the triumphs over smallpox, yellow fever, measles, and poliomyelitis. Part III addresses present and future challenges from such agents as Lassa Fever, Ebola, Hantavirus, SARS, West Nile Virus, HIV/AIDS, Mad Cow Disease, and resurgent influenza.
Assessment: The author's conception of science and its relation to culture may be naive, but his book is hardly to be dismissed on that account. Indeed, his chapter on the mid-twentieth-century eradication of poliomyelitis ought to be required reading in our present climate of shrill, cynical dismissal of civil society and notions of the public good. He reminds us that not long ago, even the developed world suffered polio, yellow fever, and measles as routine horrors. Their control and eradication took community organizing and government intervention on a grand scale; it also took a profound public trust in — and solid funding of — modern biomedical science and its best practitioners. At the least, it required parents not to be so foolish as to prevent the vaccination of their children. "Libertarian" objections to strong public health regimes hold up poorly against this account of humanity's battle with viral disease. Later chapters on the emerging threats of SARS, resurgent influenza, and degenerative neurological disorders make a compelling case that the author's brand of rational, clear-headed medical liberalism will be necessary in the future if we wish to maintain even our current, limited freedom from microbial misery.