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Outbreaks and Epidemics - Meera Senthilingam ****

This book was written before the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, though it has been updated to include it: it's certainly not any kind of attempt to cash in, but rather a sober reflection on how outbreaks and epidemics work, what process the world has in place to deal with them and how a changing, globalised world has magnified risk.

If I'm honest, I'm not a great fan of medical books, but Meera Senthilingam gives an important introduction to disease outbreaks and epidemics, giving enough detail to make sense of them without ever being too technical for the general reader. This is careful journalism, which can sometimes come across as rather dry, but that's not necessarily a bad thing given the topic.

The book starts by plunging us into the beginnings of the 2003 SARS epidemic, then brings in COVID-19 (as of, by the look of it, around the start of March 2020) and measles before plunging back to smallpox and the origins of vaccination. There is a strong section on disease and politics - which can have a huge impact, for example, where there is a strong antivax movement or suspicion that vaccinations are an attempt to exert control by a foreign power -  exploration of transmission routes, and much more. I knew quite a lot of basics, but learned a lot, including about less familiar (to Europe) diseases such as guinea worm and yaws. I also wasn't aware how much some of the ancient diseases like the plague and leprosy were still around, while of course diseases such as malaria remain a huge killer (mosquitos get their own chapter), and some like tuberculosis are resurgent as they become more antibiotic resistant.

It's not a cheerful read, even if the world weren't in the grip of a pandemic, but it is a book that provides very helpful context.

If I have any complaint, there is rather a lot of definition of terms, I would have liked to see more about the possible use of phages with bacterial infections, and it could have done with a few more narrative sections, but Senthilingam does an excellent job of making the risks of epidemics and pandemics clear without ever being sensationalist or patronising.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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