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Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Diseaseby Wendy Orent
Synopses & Reviews
Plague is a terrifying mystery.
In the Middle Ages, it wiped out 40 million people — 40 percent of the total population in Europe. Seven hundred years earlier, the Justinian Plague destroyed the Byzantine Empire and ushered in the Middle Ages. The plague of London in the seventeenth century killed more than 1,000 people a day. In the early twentieth century, plague again swept Asia, taking the lives of 12 million in India alone.
Even more frightening is what it could do to us in the near future. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian scientists created genetically altered, antibiotic-resistant and vaccine-resistant strains of plague that can bypass the human immune system and spread directly from person to person. These weaponized strains still exist, and they could be replicated in almost any laboratory.
Wendy Orent's Plague pieces together a fascinating and terrifying historical whodunit. Drawing on the latest research in labs around the world, along with extensive interviews with American and Soviet plague experts, Orent offers nothing less than a biography of a disease. Plague helped bring down the Roman Empire and close the Middle Ages; it has had a dramatic impact on our history, yet we still do not fully understand its own evolution. Orent's retelling of the four great pandemics makes for gripping reading and solves many puzzles. Why did some pandemics jump from person to person, while others relied on insects as carriers? Why are some strains more virulent than others? Orent reveals the key differences among rat-based, prairie dog-based, and marmot-based plague. The marmots of Central Asia, in particular, have long been hosts to the most virulent and frightening form of the disease, a form that can travel around the world in the blink of an eye.
From its ability to hide out in the wild, only to spring back into humanity with a terrifying vengeance, to its elusive capacity to develop suddenly greater virulence and transmissibility, plague is a protean nightmare. To make matters worse, Orent's disturbing revelations about the former Soviet bioweapon programs suggest that the nightmare may not be over. Plague is chilling reading at the dawn of a new age of bioterrorism.
"As journalist Orent shows, what is called the plague — a killer of millions throughout the centuries — is several different diseases, some spread by animals, others by humans. Luckily, the Black Death, as the plague was called in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, 'never became a permanent human specialist, like smallpox,' in part, she surmises, because it was too virulent to survive for long. But when Orent moves on to the present and future of the plague, she's treading on uncertain ground. With the help of a former Soviet bioweapons scientist, Igor Domaradskij, whose memoirs she's edited, she throws the spotlight on the Soviet development of strains of the plague. The frightening thing, she notes, is that some of these strains can no longer be accounted for. Whether or not that is something that should be feared is unclear: American experts she quotes argue that these viruses are no longer major threats to create an epidemic. But she contends that while not as deadly as anthrax, the strains of the plague created in the former Soviet Union — or other strains of the disease that might be antibiotic resistant — are indeed something to worry about. Not so long ago, a book like this might have seemed like fear mongering. In the post — September 11 world, a plague outbreak may still be unlikely, but many readers will find this a subject deserving further investigation. (May)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Book News Annotation:
The plague germ Yersinia pestis/ has killed tens of millions of people in its three known pandemics, according to freelance science journalist Orent, and she warns that if terrorists could get their hands on plague weaponized by Soviet scientists it could kill millions more in a fourth. She introduces readers to one of those scientists, Igor V. Domaradskij, describing his Janus-faced work in researching the possibilities of using plague as a weapon. She then discusses some of the science of the plague, offering a number of reinterpretations of the conventional scientific understanding of its ability to cause virulent epidemics. She also explores the history of the three pandemics of plague and examines the possibilities of a forth.
Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Leaving no historical or scientific stone unturned, Orent has produced electrifying reading that offers a chilling prognosis for mankind at the dawn of a new antibiotic-resistant, terrorist age.
About the Author
Wendy Orent holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Michigan. She is a leading freelance science journalist who writes for theLos Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The New Republic, among others. She recently collaborated on the English edition of Soviet bioweaponeer Igor Domaradskij's memoir, Biowarrior. Orent lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
Table of Contents
Return to Obolensk
The Mystery of Plague
The Winepress of God
The Renaissance Plague
The Third Pandemic
The Enduring Threat
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