Another idiosyncratic jaunt through the world of tropical diseases from the author of Who Gave Pinta to the Santa Maria? (1997).
Sometimes irascible, always erudite and entertaining, sensibly alert to the dangers posed by the microscopic world of pathogens, Desowitz has a way with words. The federal bodysnatchers referred to here turn out to be the NIH’s Office of Technology Transfer, which took out a patent on a virus found in a Papua New Guinea tribesman, much to the author’s dismay. That episode is but one chapter in this curmudgeonly work, which takes a look at how we have failed in the fight against malaria and sleeping sickness and examines our readiness to deal with the arrival of new infectious diseases on our own shores. While the search for a vaccine has been going on for decades, malaria still infects some 300 million and kills some 3 million annually, and while elflornithine (called the “wake-up-from-the-dead drug” in tropical Africa) is effective against sleeping sickness, it is also too expensive for poverty-stricken countries already overwhelmed by AIDS. Desowitz uses the blunders in our management of West Nile virus to point out the need for better-trained people, better labs, and increased funding for public health in the US. In a chapter titled “Loose Stools and Troubled Waters,” he examines an outbreak of diarrhea that afflicted 403,000 midwesterners, the largest documented outbreak of a waterborne disease in the US. The Great 1992 Milwaukee Cryptosporidium Horror Show, as Desowitz calls it, revealed that current municipal water-treatment systems simply cannot remove feces-borne Cryptosporidium from the water supply—a problem likely to be exacerbated, he notes, as global warming brings increased rain and swollen rivers contaminated with sewage. Further medical challenges will arise as global warming turns temperate zones tropical, affecting a host of climate-influenced diseases, including cholera.
Desowitz makes science scintillating, but his message is dead serious: It’s not just bio-terrorists we need to be concerned about. (8 illustrations, not seen)