Review: Spillover

It is easy alarm people over the possibility of a pandemic.  The mass media does it every cold and flu season, which made me a little leery of David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections And The Next Human Pandemic. I was pleasantly surprised.  This is an informative, well-reasoned and researched book about epidemiology.  Admittedly, this is a niche.

Quammen spends all of Spillover tromping the globe describing different diseases that have jumped from other species to mankind, with differing severe effects.  Outbreaks of Ebola or Hendra, frightening though they can be are usually isolated and small events; AIDS has been a widespread slow burn. Along the way he introduces us to the people who study these things and the techniques they use.

He also builds the edifice of our current understanding for the reader.  He describes how diseases can primarily live in a reservoir host for decades and why they can be more virulent when they jump species.  We also learn why diseases that have such a safe haven are harder to eradicate.  AIDS and ebola can hide in their animal reservoirs; polio and smallpox cannot.  There is much more to our understanding than that simple fact, and Spillover does a good job building up that understanding.

The writing is technical.  Quammen expects his readers to be comfortable with science and a little math, but he has a real knack for the illustrative example.  He also is good at pointing out the salient aspects of a mathematical or scientific principle, even if the reader doesn’t know the full principle.

The only thing that disappointed me about the book was that there’s no introduction that sets a road map for the book.  You have to sort of trust Quammen that he’s got a point or two and that they will emerge over the course of the lengthy text.  They do, but given the size of the tome and the occasionally daunting technical content, a goal would have helped.


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