BOOK REVIEW: Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen

Pandemics: A Very Short IntroductionPandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

This book explores disease pandemics through the lens of History. I open with that because this is a topic that can (and has) been addressed through many different disciplines, and a reader expecting biological or epidemiological insights is likely to be disappointed. However, if one is interested in questions of how, where, and with what impacts various diseases spread, this book provides a concise overview for seven select pandemics: The Plague, Smallpox, Malaria, Cholera, Tuberculosis, Influenza, HIV/AIDS.

This book belongs to Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series, a massive collection of brief guides outlining a wide range of scholarly topics. This title complies with general guidelines of the series, presenting the basics of a subject in a manner accessible to a neophyte, citing sources and providing recommendations for further reading, and offering graphics to support the text where beneficial.

As mentioned, the book delves into the seven pandemics listed in the opening paragraph, and does so in the order in which they are listed. Each disease is presented in its own chapter – so the book consists of a prologue, seven chapters, an epilogue, and back matter (i.e. citations, recommendations for additional reading, and the index.)

Obviously, these seven pandemics don’t represent a complete history of disease pandemics. The book was published in 2016, well before the COVID-19 pandemic (though readers will certainly read some prescient-sounding statements — particularly in the epilogue,) but not even all past epidemics classed as pandemics are addressed. [It should be noted that there is no perfectly agreed upon dividing line between epidemic and pandemic.] Still, this book includes the biggest and most globally-widespread pandemics, but it also covers a diverse collection of diseases, including: contagious, vector-borne, and water-borne illnesses, as well as bacteria- and virus-induced diseases. It’s worth noting that The Plague is a worthy first case not only because it’s one of the diseases that has most shaped human history, but also because there’s not a great deal known about disease before then. (During the relatively recent 1918 “Spanish” Flu pandemic, the medical community still didn’t know anything about viruses, and so one can imagine how little ancient people would have understood about these causes of death.)

As the book shares information about the pandemics and their impact on the world, it also teaches one something about how medicine and science progressed as a result of these events. This is famously evident in the case of Cholera, a disease whose unusual characteristics with respect to spread baffled doctors until a clever investigator learned that cases were tied to a common water well. The case of Cholera is a prime example of how changing one’s approach can resolve a stubborn question, looking at the cases spatially offered an immediate insight that other modes of investigation had failed to present.

I found this book to offer interesting insight into pandemics. If you are looking to understand the history of disease pandemics, this is a great book with which to start one’s study.

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Seeking Expert Answers About A Possible Bengaluru Ratzilla

This fake rat is kind of large, but if you asked me   how it differed from real Indian rats, I'd have to say the bling. Indian rats aren't ostentatious, and rarely wear jewelry.

This fake rat is kind of big, but if you asked me how it differed from real Indian rats, I’d have to say the bling. Real Bengaluru rats aren’t ostentatious, and rarely wear jewelry.

Occasionally, I will see a rat–usually the carcass thereof–that makes me exclaim… Duh-uh-AAAaaammmmm! They often look like beavers, sans the distinctive paddle-tail, but with a whip-like, hairless rat tail in its place.


These sightings have raised some intriguing questions:


The first question is for any biologists or geneticists who–quite improbably–might read this post. Is it possible for the offspring of an English Bulldog and a Norwegian Rat to survive? If so, I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen one. If I find out where it lives, will they name it after me? Can I pay them not to?


The second question is for statisticians–particularly bio-statisticians. Let’s say that 95 percent of rats successfully live their lives underground, in walls, and out of sight. Let’s further say that I’ve seen a rat that was 1.5 feet long and 0.75 feet wide. Is it possible to calculate how large the biggest statistically likely rat would be. I’m thinking, lurking somewhere in the sewers, there is a three-foot long and foot-and-a-half wide ratzilla–probably chomping on a cigar and belching occasionally.


The third question is for an ecologist.  I know that cats and other predators will attack–often successfully–prey that are larger than they are. However, given the freakish disparity in sizes that we are seeing, will the existing ecological order be overturned, and to what effect? Bangalorean cats are about the same size as American cats, but Bangalorean rats are about the size of American pigs–not the cute little pot-bellied variety but rather the kind that take a blue ribbon at a 4H County Fair. I know humans were once primarily prey, and only quite recently became dominant predators. This worries me because I know that humanity’s prey-like predilection to be scared of everything, combined with its unprecedented predatory weapon set, has fucked up the world but good. I can only image what a rat would do with a hydrogen bomb.


The fourth question for a rat neurologist. Are rats really that much smarter than turtles? I know the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles follow their Rat Sensei unquestioningly. I googled it. Rats live about 1 year and turtles can live to be about 40. So Splinter must have learned much faster in addition to being much smarter.


OK, the last one was not a serious question (but it’s a serious plot-hole for TMNT), but I do have one last question for the general public.


Which do you find more disturbing: a.) when you see a single mammoth rat? or b.) when you see an elaborate Vietcong-style series of tunnel openings and you know there is a billion rat army wriggling all over each other just centimeters below your feet?


Please don’t think I’m anti-rat. I know that, while we fear the plague-infested rats, it was really the fleas that gave us the Black Plague. I also know there are places like Karni Mata Temple in Rajasthan where rats are treated deferentially. There are an estimate 20,000 rats living on the temple grounds.

Source: Wikipedia entry on Karni Mata Temple in Rajasthan.

Source: Wikipedia entry on Karni Mata Temple in Rajasthan.

I guess this raises one more question for a rat nutritionist. How come these rats, which are fed and cared for, don’t get huge like the one’s lurking in the back alleys of Bengaluru.





Sharing Stories of the Plaguepocalypse

[I’m recycling this from a Figment competition that I once entered–and lost.]

Day 100, Post-Apocalypse

Day 100, Post-Apocalypse

JB and I worked tediously to find and repair damaged insulation on the main from the solar farm down to our bunker. Breaks or cracks in the insulation meant lost energy that we could not afford, but we had to bury the cheap cable available to us because the Mojave sun degraded it too rapidly otherwise. Burying the line invited a whole new problem because burrowing critters then began to gnaw on it. Whenever there was a power drop, two of our trio had to come out and do line maintenance.  Output should have been at its maximum given it was mid-day during the hottest time of year, but, instead, we were experiencing a sixty percent drop in power.

We wore white from head to toe except for a slit in our ninja-like masks where sunglasses covered the unclothed region and protected our eyes from the harsh rays and glints.  This had always been a harsh land, but changes experienced in recent decades made it far hotter.  I sucked a mouthful of water from the bladder that lay next to my body under my baggy white clothes. The water was hot, like a freshly brewed cup of tea—sans the tea.

“Son-of-a…, sweat is stinging my eyes,”  JB said as he removed his sunglasses, and blotted his eyes with his sleeve.

“Put the shades back on. We can’t have you getting burned retinas,” I said.

“Yeah, yeah, if I go blind who’ll come out here with you to dig up line?” JB’s reply dripped sarcasm.

“Exactly, now you’re getting it,” I said.

JB wiped his eyes once more, and then put the glasses back on. Without the shades, the surroundings looked like the Mars of old movies – cast in a reddish hue.

“I think I’ve got it,” JB called out.

“Looks like it,” I replied, leaning over to look in JB’s newly-excavated hole.

A mole rat skeleton had its teeth buried in the insulation.

After removing the rodent, patching the insulation, and putting the sand back, JB and I walked back to the hatch of our bunker.

JB crouched over the opening. He touched the metal lip of the hatch and immediately yanked his hand away while screaming an expletive. The gloves were not thick; they were for keeping the sun off the skin while holding in as little heat as possible.

JB called down the shaft, “Brit!”

“What ‘cha want,”  Brittany replied.

“How’s our power level, we pulled a fried mole rat off the line,” I asked.

“Yum!…,  The power is back to normal,”  She called back.

I followed JB down the long ladder into the bunker. I pulled the hot hatch closed behind me and secured it against some unlikely foe.

“We need to protect that line somehow,” I said

“I’m just glad we didn’t have to hump out to the transmitter. The last time it broke down I was loopy with dehydration by the time I got back. You sure this is the only place for us to live?” JB said.

Brit came in with two cups of water and handed them to JB and myself.  She said, “I’ve got the loop broadcasting again and the receivers are turned up loud.”

“If you can come up with someplace else where we can tap into the energy necessary to keep broadcasting, I’m all ears,” I responded.

“That’s just it. We’ve been broadcasting all this time, and we’re not getting any reply,”  JB said.

“We also don’t know whether this climate is responsible for our good fortune,” I said.

JB had no response.

“Good fortune? Oh, my, I feel like such a princess.” Brit said curtseying with her fingertips bunched up and wrists kinked as if she were holding up a skirt.

“I mean being alive,” I clarified.

There was a silence.

Brit spoke up, “Remember people?… I love you guys, but I’d give anything to meet a stranger. Remember the last time you saw a crowd of strangers.”


I did, indeed, remember.

I was planning on going to Union Station to get out the Los Angeles. Before I left my apartment, I saw a news story showing the train station among all the other avenues of disembarkation that were thronged with people.  The streets outside the station were flooded with a throbbing, undulating mass of humanity. As in the mosh-pit of a rock concert, there were two primary classes of people: those who were screaming and those who were suffocating. Mixed in among these were glassy-eyed souls who had the good sense to realize they were the walking dead, and to behave accordingly.  There were images from packed train-less platforms, and the grandiose cavernous waiting area.

I packed my gear and donned boots so as to be prepared to hike out of town if necessary. It proved to be a wise move, because I when I arrived at the train station the wall of humanity was impenetrable.

I hated crowds. Crowds were noisy, hot, and chaotic.  My hatred of crowds saved my life. Nature has its weird ways. I had once read about ants that could take down a fully grown cow. They did this by covering the animal benignly, and then, upon a release of a pheromone from the ants on the creature’s head, they all stung at once. This malady, a hemorrhagic fever of some sort, was similarly impossibly intelligent and geared toward wiping out the entire species. It seemed to know when its victims were within a crowd, by what mechanism I cannot imagine, and it would then send them into sneezing and coughing fits that propelled droplets of virulent blood in a fine mist to those all around.

Now I missed crowds, because they were a sign that one’s species wouldn’t die with oneself.

JB and Brit had taken to telling each other their own last crowd stories, which we’d heard before. We’d heard all of each other’s stories.

Well there was one story that I kept for myself. It was the story of the day before I met up with Brit and JB. It was my nadir.

I had been hiking east from the city. My path merged with the I-40 corridor, and it was the most horrific day of my life. I’d always been an avid hiker and had spent long periods on my own before, but these times of solitude were without signs of humanity. As I came upon I-40, there were people all around -in cars and on the ground, but they were all stiff and had rivulets of brown or red running from their noses, mouths, ears, eyes, and presumably the unseen orifices.

When I saw a monastery on a hillside, I thought I was saved.  Surely the isolated monks or nuns were safe and would help out a weary uninfected traveler? I found an old stone church that was post and beam on the inside. Anyway, my hope faded when I found the pews had been used as hospital beds, and all, patient and caretaker alike, were bled out. The only signs of life were rats on the floor, weeds in the mortar joints, and birds in the rafters. That was my moment of greatest loneliness, for if God had abandoned his own house, what hope was there for me.