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When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America and the Fears They Have Unleashedby Howard Markel
Synopses & Reviews
ONE: Facing Tuberculosis
One afternoon a month and a day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I was in a crowded subway car making its way down Manhattan's Upper West Side. Only seven miles south of the 125th Street station, where the train was delayed temporarily, rescue workers and firemen were searching through the rubble and carnage of September 11, 2001. Yet on the subway that afternoon-and around the country-a different form of terror was on our minds.
Directly above me on both sides of the train were bright posters advertising a new and improved detergent that "eliminates 99.9% of all bacteria lurking in your clothing." (Parenthetically, all soaps pretty much accomplish this task.) Sitting next to me was a heavyset woman rubbing her hands over and over like some modern-day Lady Macbeth. Only instead of washing off the blood of her royal rivals, she was slathering her hands with a pinkish red anti-bacterial moisturizer "guaranteed to both soften the skin and rid you of nasty germs." Seated next to her were two older men who appeared to be breathing less deeply and far more rapidly than I suspected they might otherwise be doing. At the very end of the car was a young woman wearing a surgical mask and rubber gloves.
If these signs were not enough to alert the casual observer to what was going on, all one had to do was glance at the newspapers many were reading. Every publication, from the lowly tabloids to the august New York Times, screamed the same headline in bold print: ANTHRAX Inside their pages were all the sordid details of the infection-laden letters sent earlier that week to Senator Tom Daschle and others. That very morning, an assistant to NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, who received a similar missive in late September, was confirmed to have a bona fide case of cutaneous anthrax.
In the weeks that followed, several more cases of anthrax popped up, some easily explained (such as those among the postal workers handling the tainted mail) and some not (such as the fatal case in an elderly woman from Connecticut whose mail was, unluckily, mixed in with contaminated envelopes meant for others). And we all worried if the Pandora's box of germs that appeared to have been opened by terrorists would ever be closed. The sudden appearance of a frightening, infectious agent was, perhaps, one of the few things that could have so successfully taken the nation's collective mind, albeit temporarily, off the stunning events at ground zero. Government officials searched to find the source of the infection, to the accompaniment of television pundits pointing fingers and calling our public health mechanisms inadequate. Sales of Cipro, one of several antibiotics effective against anthrax (and by far the most expensive), went through the roof. Emergency rooms and clinics across the country were inundated with people wondering if every scrape, wheeze, or contact with something as harmless as the crumbs of a powdered sugar doughnut was an incipient case of anthrax.2
That the public would focus with a laser beam intensity on anthrax, a strange scourge that killed only a few in spectacular fashion, while paying little attention to the more common contagions that literally plague us on a daily basis, is a phenomenon hardly unique to our era. Healthy human beings frequently worry more about frightening, unexpected infections than
Howard Markel is the George E. Wantz Professor of the History of Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases at the University of Michigan, where he directs the Center for the History of Medicine. He is the
A physician and medical historian provides a definitive analysis of six major epidemics that have devastated America since 1900--including such threats as tuberculosis, typhus, and AIDS--looking at the nation's response to the pathogens; explaining why globalization, social upheaval, and international trade leave us vulnerable; and calling for a globally funded public health program. Reprint. 12,500 first printing.
The struggle against deadly microbes is endless. Diseases that have plagued human beings since ancient times still exist, new maladies like SARS make their way into the headlines, we are faced with vaccine shortages, and the threat of germ warfare has reemerged as a worldwide threat.
In this riveting account, medical historian Howard Markel takes an eye-opening look at the fragility of the American public health system. He tells the distinctive stories of six epidemics–tuberculosis, bubonic plague, trachoma, typhus, cholera, and AIDS–to show how how our chief defense against diseases from other countries has been to attempt to deny entry to carriers. He explains why this approach never worked, and makes clear that it is useless in today’s world of bustling international travel and porous borders. Illuminating our foolhardy attempts at isolation and showing that globalization renders us all potential inhabitants of the so-called Hot Zone, Markel makes a compelling case for a globally funded public health program that could stop the spread of epidemics and safeguard the health of everyone on the planet.
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