As if bioterrorism weren’t scary enough, now comes word that nature itself is gunning for us in the form of rapidly evolving pathogens.
Immunologist Levy (Microbiology/Boston Univ.) and Scientific American contributing editor Fischetti join forces to tell a gripping tale of flesh-eating bacteria, drug-resistant and highly infectious bacilli, mutant flu viruses, and brain-destroying prions. Their informative work gets its human touch from the personal stories of victims and of the medical men and women struggling to understand and combat a host of horrific diseases. In gruesome detail, the authors recount the illnesses of people killed by new and deadly strains of strep and E. coli, describe how Mad Cow disease destroys the brain, and report on the extraordinary difficulty of treating someone with both multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis and HIV. After reminding us of the millions around the world killed by the flu in the past century, they warn that another global flu pandemic is now overdue and a vaccine for it unlikely. Anyone believing that infectious diseases are a thing of the past will have their sense of security shattered by this alarming report. The authors’ scare tactics, however, have a purpose: raising public awareness of just how serious and complex the fight against evolving microbes is, and thereby creating pressure for needed changes in how antibiotics are used in medicine and agriculture and for increases in scientific research funds and public health budgets. The final chapter, “What We Must Do,” sums up some of the actions that individuals and governments can take in the ongoing war between humankind and super pathogens. Given the emergence and headline-making spread from Asia of the mysterious new killer SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the warnings sounded here seem especially timely.
Disturbing cry of alarm about a threat to human survival the world appears ill-prepared to counter.