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CONTAGION by Mark Harrison


How Commerce Has Spread Disease

by Mark Harrison

Pub Date: Jan. 8th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-300-12357-9
Publisher: Yale Univ.

AIDS probably began in Africa and the influenza of 1918 in Europe. Modern transportation spread them across the world, but pre-modern transportation did the same with surprising efficiency, according to this detailed, scholarly examination of the politics of pandemics.

Harrison (History of Medicine/Oxford Univ.; Medicine and Victory: British Military Medicine in the Second World War, 2009, etc.) begins in the 14th century with bubonic plague, carried west from central Asia by sea and land commerce. He also examines yellow fever, carried from Africa by slaves after 1500. No other disease appears until the author reaches the 19th century, when cholera first appeared. Steam-powered ships, railways and then airlines accelerated the spread of human, as well as plant and animal, diseases, leading to our century’s increasing collection of oddities, from SARS to mad cow disease to AIDS to the mundane but often-deadly influenza, hepatitis and malaria. Until a century ago, quarantines seemed vital, so the subject dominates the book’s first half. Traders hated to lose money, and their governments were often sympathetic, so science—even when correct—still often took a back seat to national interests. Thus, during the mad cow disease panic, countries prohibited beef imports with an eye to eliminating competition with local ranchers. Harrison devotes little time to the diseases themselves, focusing more on public health tactics (usually useless until the late 19th century) and how governments and traders responded.

While a valuable contribution to the history of epidemiology, the book contains more than average readers may want to know about sanitary laws over the centuries and the accompanying diplomatic and medical quarrels.