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Synopsis

A masterpiece of science reporting that tracks the animal origins of emerging human diseases.

The emergence of strange new diseases is a frightening problem that seems to be getting worse. In this age of speedy travel, it threatens a worldwide pandemic. We hear news reports of Ebola, SARS, AIDS, and something called Hendra killing horses and people in Australia—but those reports miss the big truth that such phenomena are part of a single pattern. The bugs that transmit these diseases share one thing: they originate in wild animals and pass to humans by a process called spillover. David Quammen tracks this subject around the world. He recounts adventures in the field—netting bats in China, trapping monkeys in Bangladesh, stalking gorillas in the Congo—with the world’s leading disease scientists. In Spillover Quammen takes the reader along on this astonishing quest to learn how, where from, and why these diseases emerge, and he asks the terrifying question: What might the next big one be?

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Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic
Average rating
5 / 5
October 5th, 2013
A "spillover" occurs when a microbe crosses over from an animal to humans, as an infectious disease. David Quammen describes many examples of this: SARS, ebola, HIV, influenza, marburg and hendra. Each chapter is a detective story--scientists, veterinarians and medical researchers are detectives searching for the source of a disease. The source is usually a reservoir--an animal that carries the microbe, but is not usually harmed by the microbe. And--now here's the best part--Quammen is not a stay-at-home researcher. He visits the scientists and interviews them over extended periods of time. And better yet--he accompanies scientists on research expeditions all over the world, in search of the reservoirs for terrible diseases. Quammen describes, in detail, what it is like to hunt for elusive viruses in bats, chimpanzees, monkeys, and horses. Often, the researchers must take special precautions to avoid being infected themselves. Sometimes these precautions fail, with awful consequences. Quammen investigates why spillovers occur when and where they do. It's a combination of ecology and evolution. A microbe is carried by an animal reservoir, and usually in equilibrium where the animal is unharmed. Then, some dramatic change to the environment occurs, usually it is caused by humans impinging on the local ecology. The microbe mutates and jumps either to a vector (like a mosquito or a rat) or directly to a human. Further mutations then allow the microbe to jump from one human to another, causing an epidemic. Researchers agree that in the future, there will be lethal epidemics like AIDS and the influenza pandemic of 1918. Such epidemics are totally unpredictable, because of the diversity of human behavior. David Quammen is an excellent writer--he has a wonderful style. It is obvious from his enthusiasm and from his extensive travels, that this book represents his life-long efforts. Spillover is a sequence of detective mysteries and adventure stories, all rolled up into one. I highly recommend it!
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