The good, the bad and the ugly in the world of infection, introducing the microorganisms that are essential to life, those that complicate it and those with the potential to destroy it.
Callahan (Pathology and English/Colorado State Univ.) praises the beneficial germs that inhabit us and surround us. To those bent on sterilizing their surroundings in the interest of health—thanks to Pasteur, we have come to think of germs as the enemy—he offers some startling facts: Over 90 percent of the cells in our bodies are bacteria, and even that remaining ten percent contain bacteria. Having informed the reader of the key role played by bacteria in the evolution of mankind and in our continued well-being, he moves on to the darker side. When the balance between our host bodies and their resident microbes is disturbed, immunological diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, result. And while most bacteria are benign, there are rogues to contend with. Infectious diseases, which include anything caused by a bacterium, a parasite, a fungus, a virus or a prion, are the leading cause of death in developing countries, and the leading cause of illness in developed countries. While antibiotics were once thought to have conquered infectious diseases, Callahan reminds the reader of the havoc still created by respiratory infections, diarrhea, tuberculosis, malaria and measles, and he notes the emergence of AIDS, SARS, mad-cow disease and the West Nile virus. Of the coming pandemic of influenza, he says, “We are standing in the path of a firestorm we can do nothing about, not even imagine.” In the author’s view, it is not a question of if, but of when. Add to this the threat of bioterrorism utilizing anthrax, plague, ricin and whatever else genetic engineering concocts, and the story becomes dark indeed.
Although Callahan’s recitation of statistics occasionally becomes tedious, human-interest stories and vivid accounts of historic events enliven his text.