Skip to main content

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.

Paperback:    
Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Math Without Numbers - Milo Beckman *****

In some ways, this is the best book about pure mathematics for the general reader that I've ever seen.  At first sight, Milo Beckman's assertion that 'the only numbers in this book are the page numbers' seems like one of those testing limits some authors place on themselves, such as Roberto Trotter's interesting attempt to explain cosmology using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language, The Edge of the Sky . But in practice, Beckman's conceit is truly liberating. Dropping numbers enables him to present maths (I can't help but wince a bit at the 'math' in the title) in a far more comprehensible way. Counting and geometry may have been the historical origin of mathematics, but it has moved on. The book is divided into three primary sections - topology, analysis and algebra, plus a rather earnest dialogue on foundations of mathematics exploring the implications of Gödel's incompleteness theorems, and a closing section on modelling (

The Ten Equations that Rule the World - David Sumpter ****

David Sumpter makes it clear in this book that a couple of handfuls of equations have a huge influence on our everyday lives. I needed an equation too to give this book a star rating - I’ve never had one where there was such a divergence of feeling about it. I wanted to give it five stars for the exposition of the power and importance of these equations and just two stars for an aspect of the way that Sumpter did it. The fact that the outcome of applying my star balancing equation was four stars emphasises how good the content is. What we have here is ten key equations from applied mathematics. (Strictly, nine, as the tenth isn’t really an equation, it’s the programmer’s favourite ‘If… then…’ - though as a programmer I was always more an ‘If… then… else…’ fan.) Those equations range from the magnificent one behind Bayesian statistics and the predictive power of logistic regression to the method of determining confidence intervals and the kind of influencer matrix so beloved of social m

Reset - Ronald Deibert ***

The subtitle underscores a topic of 'reclaiming the internet for civil society'. There is no doubt that the internet has given us huge benefits - never more obvious than during the COVID pandemic - but Ronald Deibert argues that it also presents huge dangers, both from the state being able to gather data on citizens and from corporations indulging in 'surveillance capitalism' - making money out of keeping track of us and our data. Both of these are certainly significant issues that need to be explored. The majority of the book gives a depressingly dark picture of an internet where we are constantly observed, while the last pages come up with a form of response - the reset of the title. Unlike the stark specifics of the description of the problem, the suggested solution is far more tenuous, coming down primarily to being more 'republican' (with a small r, not the policies of the US political party of the same name). I'll be honest, I found Reset hard going,