Pandemic Survival: It’s Why You’re Alive | Book Review

10 September 2013 by GrrlScientist, posted in Book review, Epidemiology, Microbiology

SUMMARY: this is a readable children's book about the many disease pandemics that have plagued humans since the dawn of history.

Did you know that one in four people alive today have a positive skin test for tuberculosis? Or that you can die from cholera in just two hours? And did you know that the original name for penicillin was "mould juice"? These are just a few of the interesting titbits that you will learn in Ann Love's and Jane Drake's new non-fiction children's book, Pandemic Survival: It's Why You're Alive [Tundra Books, 2013; Amazon UK/kindle UK; Amazon US/kindle US].

But this engaging 128-page book is more than a repository of Trivial Pursuit-like facts. It tells a story, presenting a fair amount of depth about the effects of epidemic and pandemic disease on human culture throughout the ages, the development of human thinking about disease and the various technological innovations that helped open our eyes (and minds) along the way. Lavish illustrations, by the talented artist Bill Slavin, are germane, charming and colourful.

In this essential book's pages, the reader learns basic information about bacteria and viruses, how human behaviour and habits facilitate the spread of disease and how we can change our actions so disease transmission is slowed or prevented. The authors discuss important diseases such as leprosy, smallpox and typhus as well as those that have long mystified epidemiologists and medical historians, such as the biblical plague of boils, the plague of Athens, the English Sweat and even mass hysteria.

Divided into seven sections, the book progresses chronologically through human history from the 16th century up until modern times, but incorporates plenty of backstory from earlier events, such as the fall of the Roman Empire. Perhaps because this book is targeted to children, it includes an impressive number of mentions of disgusting disease details like vomit, urine, blood, liquid farts and diarrhea, and it mentions plenty of weird superstitions and bizarre rituals from ancient times that were intended to diagnose disease or to restore health.

In my opinion, the best part of this book is that we meet famous scientists like Louis Pasteur, who discredited the widely held myth of spontaneous generation, sussed out the biological mechanism of fermentation, and developed the first rabies vaccine; John Snow, who stole the pump handle off a London city well, thereby proving that the source of a cholera outbreak was contaminated water and not a "miasma"; and we also meet the incurable slob, Alexander Fleming, who returned from a family holiday to discover penicillin in a pile of bacterial plates stacked in a cluttered corner of his lab.

The authors make clear that many of these early scientists were also rather heroic; often resorting to dramatic and (frequently revolting) methods to investigate and test their ideas about particular diseases and to demonstrate to the public that they knew what they were talking about. Here's one especially gross case in point:

[Stubbins] Ffirth set out to demonstrate that yellow fever is not contagious. He'd noticed that caregivers of the sick did not necessarily get sick themselves and reasoned that yellow fever spread in another way.

A unique and startling symptom of yellow fever is black vomit. So Ffirth chose to sleep in bed sheets covered in the black vomit of a yellow fever victim. He did not get the disease. Next, he cut his arms and rubbed black vomit into the wounds. He did not get yellow fever. He dropped black vomit into his eyes – no reaction. Then he heated up some vomit and inhaled the fumes. When that didn't make him sick, he ate the black vomit. Still healthy, he covered himself in the blood, saliva and urine of yellow fever victims, and when he continued to remain well, he felt he'd proven the disease is not contagious. [p. 65]

This book does have some problems, however. First, although there is a glossary and an index, I was very surprised (and somewhat disturbed) to see that the book lacks a bibliography of sources for its informational content – surely, the authors relied on many dozens of books and other reference materials for their data? Second, I was surprised the authors didn't mention that domestication of animals is strongly linked to appearance of a great many diseases in humans, such as tuberculosis, bubonic plague, rabies, HIV and SARS, just to name a few. I was also dismayed by the occasional lapses in the clarity of the writing that could easily lead to confusion, which indicated (to me at least) that either the editor didn't know much about the topic or the book wasn't professionally edited. Yet despite my reservations, I didn't spot any overt inaccuracies in the information and the writing is generally reasonably clear.

The publisher claims this book is intended for children who are nine years and older, but I think they missed their age target: the length, technical detail and reading level of this book is better suited to older children in their early teens, and to young (and not-so-young) adults. Overall, this is a readable book that will be enjoyed by young people who aspire to be scientists or medical doctors, to anyone who is interested in the history of plagues and peoples, and it is a worthwhile addition to local school and public libraries.

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Disclaimer: This review is based on a PDF e-galley provided by NetGalley and read using bluefire reader. GrrlScientist has no known connection to the book's authors or illustrator. No compensation in any form was received by GrrlScientist for this review. All images appear here by courtesy of the publisher.

NOTE: this piece is slightly edited from the original, which was written by GrrlScientist and published on the Guardian.

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Ann Love and Jane Drake are sisters and co-authors of 33 nonfiction children's books. They have shared a life-long interest in the environment and in the wild. For these reasons, their award-winning children's books have always focused on natural history or environmental activism and their writings are intended to make children more observant of the natural world. Both Jane and Ann are married with three children each and they both live in the Toronto area.

Bill Slavin has illustrated more than 80 books for children, both fiction and non-fiction. He lives in Millbrook, Ontario, Canada.

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Grrlscientist can also be found on on her eponymous Guardian blog, and she sometimes lurks on social media; facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest. She's quite active on twitter: @GrrlScientist

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