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When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America Since 1900 and the Fears Theyhave Unleashedby Howard Markel
Synopses & Reviews
The struggle against deadly microbes is endless. Scourges that have plagued human beings since the ancients still threaten to unleash themselves; new maladies are brewing that have yet to make their appearance in the headlines; lethal germs employed as weapons of warfare and terrorism have reemerged as a worldwide menace. Regardless of their mode of attack, microbes exist to multiply, thrive, and find new hosts; they cross national boundaries and social classes, attacking without prejudice.
Now medical historian and pediatrician Howard Markel, author of Quarantine! (“Engrossing . . . Meticulously documented” —Sherwin Nuland, The New Republic), tells the story of six epidemics that broke out during the two great waves of immigration to the United States—from 1880 through 1924, and from 1965 to the present—and shows how federal legislation closed the gates to newcomers for almost forty-one years out of fear that these new people would alter the social, political, economic, and even genetic face of the nation.
Markel writes about tuberculosis today, the most serious public health threat facing the contemporary world. He writes about bubonic plague and how it came to this country in the early twentieth century; about trachoma in the years before World War I; about Ellis Island and how an East European rabbi was diagnosed and treated for the dreaded eye infection; about typhus fever and an epidemic on the Texas-Mexico border in the aftermath of Pancho Villas revolution; and about AIDS, the Haitian exodus, and the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
Markel explains how immigration in the twenty-first century is characterized by porous borders, rapid travel, and scattered destinations. While more than 75 percent of all immigrants during the first great wave of immigration came through New York Harbor, transportation today allows travel to all parts of the United States from the farthest reaches of the globe, giving public health physicians little opportunity to definitively diagnose infectious diseases that can incubate silently in a traveler, making the spread of epidemics far more than a theoretical concern.
Markel looks at our nations response to the pathogens present in our midst and examines our foolhardy attempts at isolation and our vacillation between demanding a public health system so punitive that it worsens matters rather than protects and settling for one that is too lax; how we are fascinated with all things infectious and then hardly give microbes a second thought; how the United States, a country that since its inception has prided itself on being a nation of immigrants, continues its tradition of blaming newcomers for its physical and social ills; and how globalization, social upheaval, and international travel render us all potential inhabitants of the so-called Hot Zone. Finally, Markel puts forth a plan for a globally funded public health program that could stop the spread of epidemics, help eradicate certain diseases, and protect us all.
"Markel (Quarantine!), a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan and a practicing physician, argues that quarantines in the U.S. and other restrictive measures (such as mandatory kerosene baths at the Texas-Mexico border in 1917 to kill typhus-carrying lice) are based more on xenophobia than science. An outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1900, for example, resulted in a complete cordon sanitaire around the district; the city's white merchants, however, could move freely within and outside of the area. Similarly in the early 1900s, trachoma, an infectious eye disease that was common throughout the U.S., became associated with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. More recently, Haitian refugees in the 1980s were stigmatized as carriers of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Markel argues that though quarantines of immigrant populations may have lessened the chance of major epidemics during the early 1900s, such measures unfairly punish people for being poor and sick. And nowhere is this more important than in developing countries, where rates of tuberculosis, cholera, malaria, AIDS and other deadly diseases are highest. As increased travel continues to shrink distances and bring people together, germs will also travel more easily; the prevalence of infectious disease, therefore, is no longer a merely local issue. As Markel warns in this informative and important book, we must work to prevent and treat infectious diseases throughout the entire world because 'in public health terms, every city is a 'sister city' with every other metropolis on earth.' Agents, Glen Hartley and Lynn Chu. (May 11)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A wonderful look at how infectious diseases have shaped society and changed our world. Howard Markel writes beautifully, and his perspective as both a trained historian and a dedicated physician make him a writer like no other." Abraham Verghese, Director, Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio
"A timely book. Markel, a medical historian and himself a physician, knows that the so-called general reader needs to be guided through the maze of technicalities, and he does the guiding in a text as readable as it is reliable. It reads like a thriller." Peter Gay, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University
From medical historian and physician Markel comes a startling, revelatory book about the U.S. government's response to six epidemics that devastated 19th- and 20th-century America, and why the United States continues its tradition of blaming newcomers for many of its physical and social ills.
About the Author
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 author of Quarantine! and a co-author of The Portable Pediatrician, The H. L. Mencken Baby Book, and The Practical Pediatrician.
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