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The New Killer Germs – Pete Moore ****

There is a real danger with a book like this. The message is stark. Bacteria and viruses (oh, and funguses too) are very good at damaging us, and though we briefly won the bacterial battle with antibiotics, there’s every chance that things are going to worse rather than better, because the more we ladle out the antibiotics, the more bacteria develop resistance. (And viruses don’t care anyway as antibiotics don’t affect them.) It’s the sort of message that is in danger of encouraging the reader to give up hope and go into a monastery. This sort of thing is okay in a newspaper or a magazine article, but in a book like this, we need more. Not just the dire warning – some practical conclusion. In the recent Viruses vs Superbugs, that “something more” was the use of phages, bacteria killing viruses. So what will Pete Moore offer us? Let’s keep you in suspense.
The book is certainly not a dull collection of facts. Moore has an engaging journalistic style that carries the reader along, despite the doom and gloom message. He takes us through all the dire killers, new and old (the “new” in the book’s title probably refers to Moore’s previous version, Killer Germs: Deadly Diseases of the Twenty-First Century, though this isn’t made clear in the text). They’re all there – plague, syphilis, anthrax etc. etc., plus the relatively newcomers like HIV/AIDS, Bird Flu (well, the latest version is a newcomer) and new variant CJD.
Moore is also very good on the subject of healthcare acquired infections – a political hot potato after the discovery of widespread MRSA in hospitals, and as Moore demonstrates, not one that has gone away just because there are anti-bacterial hand gel dispensers scattered around the wards. (It’s interesting that he observes it’s often the senior medical staff who don’t feel it’s necessary to make use of these dispensers.) In fact our whole attempt to counter killers seems half-doomed to failure, as practically anything we do to destroy the germs, apart from wipe them out with real destroyers like bleach (not exactly suitable for open wounds) gives them a chance to come up with a new resistance. Even worse, if a bacteria is over-exposed to (say) penicillin, it can also develop resistance to several other antibiotics. Like Viruses vs Superbugs, Moore mentions phages, but it’s in a brief chapter – if they sound interesting, get the other title as well for more detail.
The other message, which Moore doesn’t underline directly, but the thinking reader will receive, is just how dangerous air travel is. Forget crashing – it’s international travel that’s the killer. The reason most deadly diseases crop up around the world is that an infected carrier has hopped on a plane and taken something that would naturally have been quite restricted in its spread, on a journey to another continent It’s really possible to imagine a ban on all non-essential air travel to help humanity to survive. We have to ask ourselves whether a couple of weeks in the sun at an exotic location are worth it at the risk of spreading horribly painful and lethal diseases across the world. One impact this book ought to have (though I doubt it will) is an unexpected one of increasing the popularity of taking local vacations.
So is the verdict “not just gloom and doom”, or “if I’d wanted to depress myself I’d watch video tapes of 1970s soap operas”? It mostly is depression, I’m afraid. Perhaps the important message is that we don’t get blasé when all those warnings about bird flu or SARS seem to be false alarms. They were very real alarms, we just got lucky (at least, those of us who weren’t affected did) . The luck won’t continue. There will be more serious pandemics, whether from mutated bird flu or any of the other horrors in this book. This is a threat that makes everything terrorists have done relatively small beer. The war on these killer germs needs to be taken just as seriously – and Moore has done us all a service in bringing the situation clearly and understandably to us all. I can’t thank him for making me feel miserable, but I can support his cause in doing so.
Review by Brian Clegg


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