Think the Zika virus and Ebola are bad? As a renowned epidemiologist suggests, those are just previews of coming attractions.
Long ago nicknamed “Bad News Mike” for his habit of bringing gloomy tidings from the germ front, Osterholm (Public Health/Univ. of Minnesota; co-author: Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bioterrorist Catastrophe, 2000) opens with the grim thought that we humans are not necessarily well-prepared to analyze the world of disease that surrounds us. For various reasons, a few cases of Zika make much more news than the far more devastating and widespread dengue virus, which has killed many more people than Zika “with hardly a blip on the public radar.” Therefore, in terms of policy, we are not being the most rational actors when we spend $1 billion on an HIV vaccine but only $35 million to $40 million on influenza vaccines; as the author predicts, the next major pandemic “is most likely to come in the form of a deadly influenza strain.” Writing in clear if sometimes-belabored prose, Osterholm, with the assistance of Olshaker, looks at some of the worst of the bad actors, showing the economic and social effects of various diseases—effects that may pale compared to his closing scenario, which sets one of those flus in motion and watches as it ravages the world, causing not just mass death, but also the collapses of infrastructure, stock markets, and pretty much civilization itself. Even so, there’s some hope in Osterholm’s musings, since, he cheerfully remarks, in such a scenario we still wouldn’t outdo the devastation of the Black Death of medieval times. Of course, there’s always the possibility that Ebola can morph into being transmitted respiratorily, a frightening prospect.
A well-rendered work of popular science. If you don’t emerge from it as the neighborhood expert on the flu, you skipped a chapter or two. If you emerge unworried, you missed the point.