BOOK REVIEW: Spillover by David Quammen

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human PandemicSpillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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SPILLOVER is a fascinating and in-depth exploration of zoonoses – i.e. diseases that can jump from various animal species into humans. This continues to be a germane topic in the face of our current zoonotic pandemic – COVID-19. The book came out in 2012 / 2013, but has seen a groundswell of interest because it’s the most well-known popular work on this subject. One will read a few sentences in the book that seem prescient, but the author and the many experts he consults would be the first to state that this is no act of mystical precognition. Rather, a zoonotic pandemic seems to be an inevitability given humanity’s huge and growing population and the nature of our interactions with the rest of the animal kingdom. Of course, no one could say precisely when or what pathogen would lead to “the next big one,” of which – it so happens – we are currently amid. Though coronaviruses do come up as potential candidates, but so do others (e.g. certain strains of influenza.)

The book is organized differently than most. It’s cut up into bite sized chunks, with 115 chapters that are usually not more than a few pages each. However, chapters aren’t the relevant unit of interest so much as the book’s nine parts, each of which takes on a particular zoonosis, or class thereof. Because zoonoses are such a huge topic, the author focuses on a few that are of particular interest for varied reasons, including: the challenge of tracking the disease’s origins, the potential to be the next big one, the global influence of some diseases, as well as other reasons a particular zoonosis generates an interesting story.

The first part explores one of the lesser known zoonoses (except for in locales where outbreaks have occurred, e.g. Australia,) Hendra virus. While a common species of bat (the flying fox) is the reservoir for Hendra, what makes the story gripping for humans is that humans contract the disease through the intermediary of horses. While interaction with exotic wildlife is the the mode throughout the book, the fact that, here, transmission occurs from one of humanity’s closest animal friends increases the closeness-to-home effect.

Part two shifts into one of the most dramatic and well-known of the zoonoses, Ebola virus. Ebola is familiar from Richard Preston’s book “Hot Zone,” though Quammen does explain how Preston sensationalized and overstated the physical effects of the disease. [Presumably what Preston did was take the most vicious looking case and describe it through as dramatic of analogies as possible, such that it became unrecognizable from the typical case.] At any rate, it’s a disease that grabs one by the fear center because – while it doesn’t spread readily – it’s highly lethal and is unarguably an unpleasant way to go.

Part three delves into malaria and P. falciparum, the bug that causes it. Malaria has profoundly shaped human existence in the tropics. A vector-borne disease carried and passed by mosquitos, Malaria is widespread throughout much of the world and continues to generate debilitating effects. Many concepts are drilled into one while reading this book, and one worth mentioning here is the differentiation of reservoirs and vectors. A lot of the stories in this book revolve around scientists’ searches for reservoirs – the species where the pathogen resides in waiting. It’s often much more difficult to uncover a reservoir species than it is a vector (vectors invariably coming into direct contact with humans, whereas reservoirs can be far removed from humans.)

Part four investigates Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS.) This is one of the most relevant sections because SARS is a corona virus — like COVID-19 — and it served as a harbinger of a corona virus pandemic. SARS is also at least vaguely familiar to most people as it was a relatively recent epidemic.

The next two sections zoom out a bit and, instead of diving down into one zoonosis, they each consider a range of bacterial and viral zoonoses, respectively. Part five discusses Q fever, Lyme disease, Psittacosis, and other bacterial diseases that enter humans by way of other animals. Part six explores a range of viral diseases and – in the process – gives a bit of a lesson as to why viruses present such a risk as well as how different viruses work. This section covers rabies and Nipah virus.

Part seven tells the story of the search for the Marburg virus origin and reservoir. Marburg is similar to Ebola, but the story of the epidemiological search for it makes for intriguing reading. Part eight discusses HIV-AIDS and its simian predecessor, SIDS. What made this fascinating to me was that I learned that HIV has been around (at least) since the first decade of the twentieth century. If you’re like me, you associate the origin of AIDS with the 1980’s. However, with so many people regularly dying from so many different conditions in central Africa, it wasn’t obvious that those killers were getting an added help from a virus that crippled immune systems. It also took scientist a while to realize that SIDS was resulting in the death of chimpanzees. (It’s possible for a reservoir to be unaffected by a disease, and this is what they first thought to be the case.)

The final part is a wrap up that zooms out to look at the nature of episodes of ecological imbalance and “outbreaks” of species. In this case, “outbreak” is used to describe any explosion of population growth of a species. While the section opens with a species of caterpillars [forest tent caterpillars] that would occasionally flare up, killing off trees on a large scale, it discusses human population growth as an outbreak that – like all others – will inevitably end one way or another. This section also discusses influenza (which isn’t a major topic earlier in the book,) presumably because it had been the lead candidate at the time for the “next big one.” And “the next big one” is a related overarching theme in this section.

The book is annotated and has an extensive bibliography. There are few graphics, but there are maps that are helpful for those who aren’t familiar with the areas where many of these disease outbreaks originated (e.g. central Africa.)

I found this book to be intriguing. It teaches the reader some basics of epidemiology as it goes about telling the story of the spread of these diseases. [e.g. It will help one distinguish virulence and transmissibility – terms that are often used by neophytes interchangeably, but which are distinct in important ways.] However, the focus is always on the story and, therefore, it keeps these lessons interesting throughout. I’d highly recommend this book for those who are interested in the pandemic, zoonoses, or the challenges of combating disease.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the WorldPale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Before the present-day COVID-19 pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918 seemed to be a largely forgotten historical footnote. It was overshadowed by its more explosive, if less lethal, co-event, World War I – the war that was fallaciously believed to hold the promise of ending all wars. Furthermore, Spanish Flu never achieved the mystique of the Black Death. In fact, among the fascinating questions this book examines is why such a world-changing event isn’t more diligently studied. Of course, these days there is a sort of grim desire to understand what happened in 1918 and what – if any – lessons can be learned.

[Which isn’t to suggest that that Influenza virus pandemic was perfectly analogous to the present Coronavirus pandemic. In 1918, science was still at a state in which there remained debate about whether the disease resulted from a bacterium or a virus, and — in some sense — it didn’t matter because they didn’t have good treatments for either. For COVID, we had accurate tests in short order, and will no doubt have a vaccine at some point in the coming months. That said, I’m not dismissive of COVID-19. As I understand it, COVID’s R-nought (reproductive ratio), and the fact that both pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission occur make the current pandemic serious business. Furthermore, while scientific understanding has increased radically, human psychology is surprisingly similar and some of the same conspiracy theories and wishful thinking that made things worse a hundred years ago may prove to do the same today.]

The strength of Spinney’s book is that it takes global perspective. It doesn’t fixate on the United States (where the 1918 Flu was first understood to its own, new disease) or Europe (where it was inexorably linked to the fighting, and got its fallacious name of “Spanish Flu.”) In addition to these locals, Spinney’s telling visits and revisits China (one of the alternative candidates for ground zero,) India (which suffered tremendous fatalities from the disease,) Brazil, and a number of other countries around the globe.

The book’s twenty-two chapters are arranged into eight parts. While these divisions are topically organized, emphasis is given to the stories being told and so said topics aren’t in one’s face but are, rather, background that is subtly presented in narrative form. Chronological consideration is tertiary. The penultimate part (Part VII) does explore the world in the wake of the Spanish Flu, but discussion of attempts to find the true index patient (a.k.a. patient zero) don’t take place until chapter 11 [Part V.] [To clarify, the acknowledged patient zero was a soldier at a US military base in the middle of America, but there are widely divergent thoughts about how long the disease might have been infecting people before that – masked either by the war or by the lack of data collection and reporting throughout the world. The only thing that is widely agreed upon is that the “Spanish Flu” didn’t originate in Spain.] I’m certainly fine with meandering on chronology in order to serve a more appealing narrative.

A lot of the subjects covered are interesting, but are what one would expect, e.g. what was it like to live in the midst of Spanish Flu. Therefore, I want to focus on a few topics that I found particularly interesting because they were illuminating, but weren’t necessarily what I anticipated. One set of topics addressed sheds light on just how different a time 1918 was. I suppose different people have different ideas about how modern the early 20th century was — relative to today. To me it was interesting to hear about church leaders calling upon people to attend services because there was an idea that the Flu was a result of god finding humanity’s “lack of faith disturbing.” [I quote Darth Vader, not this book’s author.] I’m sure there are priests and preachers saying the same these days, but I also suspect those voices are so far into the lunatic fringe as to not merit much attention, but not so in 1918 (and, thusly, many went to sit in high-density churches only to spread the flu more effectively than any virus could hope for.) Another interesting insight into the level of modernity was Spinney’s explanation of the fact that medicine, as we know it, had not yet risen to a favored spot above approaches like homeopathy and shamanism. Lest it sound like I’m engaging in the outhouse fallacy; I will say that people are falling in many of the same holes despite more advanced understanding of viruses – particularly as regards to people’s desire to impose order and purpose on a natural event.]

The other discussion that I found unexpected and revelatory was about the dearth of art and literature on the subject of the 1918 Flu. Spinney describes the effects of Spanish Flu on many major artists of the time, but goes on to discuss how few of those who survived the flu in 1918 brought it into their works. She does also discuss some of the works that did come about, as well.

I found this book fascinating from cover to cover. The fact that it covered so much ground geographically as well as topically was part of that intrigue. Learning what changes occurred in the wake of the 1918 Flu has certainly helped me consider what to expect in our future. The similarities and differences between then and now also surprised me. Just like today, there were a lot of wildly bizarre conspiracy theories from people who had to make sense of both the randomness of the Flu’s action and the fact that it put such a nasty a crimp in their lifestyle. It’s also interesting to consider some of the more intellectually stimulating theories – e.g. that part of the reason for the lethality of Spanish Flu is that in the theater of war, the virus didn’t benefit from the internal restraint usually shown (because people were dying so rapidly) and so mutations that favored a quick and harsh influence made gains. [For those who aren’t aware, it was the second wave of the Spanish Flu that was really nasty. The first wave was like seasonal flu for almost everyone, and by the third wave the virus didn’t have much of a reservoir of those without acquired immunity and so petered out relatively quickly.]

If you want to learn more about Spanish Flu, I’d highly recommend this book – particularly if you are interested in the global story and the after-effects of the disease.

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Thoughts of a Traveler Traveling Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

I just returned from a week of traveling in Rajasthan and Punjab for Holi and Hola Mohalla, respectively. Because my trip involved only domestic travel within India, there were no formal disruptions, but evidence of concern about the virus was widespread.

The first thing one notices is that instead of a few East Asian tourists protecting themselves against the poor air quality of megalopolises, at least a third of those traveling were wearing masks. Some unknown percentage of these travelers presumably have sound, medically-directed reasons for donning the masks (e.g. they have some sort of infection, they have compromised immune systems, etc.) but for many they are merely a security blanket. I suspect the reason that “wear masks” isn’t a part of the advice of public health experts has to do with the two types of masks that one sees:

First, the type that are to keeping out virus as a chain-link fence is to keeping out mosquitos.

Second, the type that will keep out virus (if worn / changed as directed,) but which — because they are expensive and hard to come by — are worn far too long, such that they become a nice warm, moist petri-dish pressed up against one’s face.

I don’t begrudge anyone a security blanket. In fact, a lot of what I’m suggesting herein are ways to maintain a confident and positive attitude so your immune system can be its awesome self — whatever that takes. My worry about the mask phenomena is that some people seem to believe that if one little viral agent makes it inside their body they are doomed. That’s simply not the case. If a viral marauder gets into your body, its chances of being escorted right back out by your body’s mucosal bouncers, swallowed whole by a macrophage, dissolved in your stomach’s acid bath, or otherwise being discovered and destroyed by your body’s sentry force is quite good.

In short, a mask isn’t your last line of defense. It’s a first line of defense that’s followed by an immune response that is swift and deadly to foreign invaders. It should be noted that nose-breathers already have a kind of mask, in the form of the nose and nasal passages. When you breath through your nose, your natural filtration system is at work. If you tend to breath through your mouth (particularly during inhalation) you have a lessened defense.

If you have trouble maintaining nose-breathing under all circumstances, I’d recommend a pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) practice. I don’t know how well it’s established by study, but I’ve found that I breath much more effectively and consistently through my nose since I’ve regularly practiced pranayama. Another helpful yogic tool is kechari mudra, which has helped me to even run without mouth breathing. (Kechari mudra involves curling the tongue so that the bottom of the tongue rests against the soft palate at the back of the roof of one’s mouth. This seems to reduce turbulence that would be created by air swirling in one’s oral cavity, and makes more of a direct line of travel for the breath in and out through the nasal passageways. At a minimum, it focuses one’s attention on the area the breath is passing through, and makes one aware of the breath.)

All this talk about one’s immune system keeping one safe may seem a bit pollyannaish or over-optimistic. Don’t get me wrong, I follow and would recommend others follow all the basic precautions regarding washing one’s hands and minimizing hanging out in high density environments — particularly high density environments with high-risk individuals. (i.e. for the asymptomatic [or alternatively-symptomatic individuals, i.e. those who have something but probably not COVID-19] who think they absolutely must be tested to have peace of mind, realize that you are likely walking into a high-risk environment and increasing your chance of self-fulfilling prophecy. Just sayin’. If you are able to rest comfortably, you might want to consider doing so.)

Back to the issue of being irrationally optimistic or a Pollyanna. My response is: fair enough. But there is an upside to being overly optimistic (if cautious) but none-whatsoever to being a worrier. Again, by being “a worrier” I’m not talking about taking precautions, I’m talking about obsessing or being needlessly pessimistic about the bodily systems (e.g. your immune system, your lymphatic system, your digestive system, etc.) that are keeping you safe all day and everyday.

I’d say if there is an upside to the pandemic, it was in reminding me to practice gratitude toward my body, my immune system, my gut bacteria, etc. — all of which keep me feeling excellent 99.9% percent of the time. Does that mean I think I can’t catch infection? No, it doesn’t, but it does mean that if I catch one my body will be much more effective at defending itself.

So when people ask me why I’m not worried about traveling, it’s because my immune system is awesome and I’m thankful for it every day.

A couple of post-scripts:

– I’ve been seeing the swarm of memes about toilet paper shortage in the US. Having moved to a part of the world that recognizes that wiping one’s backside with dry paper isn’t the height of sanitary practice, all I can say is: “You might want to look into what most of the world does most of the time.”

– I understand that there is a desire to curtail a wider spread of the virus, but this easily tips into a form of xenophobia — “a your COVID-19 is worse than our COVID-19.”  If a person is without symptoms, being Chinese (or from any other country with many cases) doesn’t mean that they are Typhoid Mary.