William Cook

Of microbes and men

Globalisation is spreading infection like never before. We should brace ourselves for The Next Pandemic

Which disease are you most scared of catching: Ebola or influenza? Before I read this medical memoir, I would have said Ebola. Now, I’d say flu. As Dr Ali S. Khan points out, Ebola is fairly hard to catch; flu is fairly easy. And unlike wimpy man flu, proper flu can be a killer. You’ve heard of the Spanish flu, which killed 675,000 Americans a century ago. But did you know that influenza still kills up to 50,000 Americans every year?

Most pandemics are more like flu than Ebola: they don’t sound that spooky until they get out of hand. Yet instead, we worry about killer bugs which we stand much less chance of catching. When I was a teenager, I was terrified of contracting HIV, though the risk I faced was minuscule. I didn’t worry about meningitis, even though it had already killed one of my best friends. Thirty years later, meningitis nearly killed my teenage son. Belatedly, I learned there are hundreds of different strains of meningitis, and that the vaccines we’re all given only guard against a few dozen. My son’s strain wasn’t one of them. Now which are you more frightened of: meningitis or Aids?

Khan is an American epidemiologist. Until recently he was director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness & Response at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC for short). The CDC’s job is to stamp out pandemics before they get a proper foothold. This chatty, cheerful book reveals how he went about his work.

According to Khan, being an epidemiologist is a bit like being a private detective. He sifts through lots of paperwork; he treks from door to door. His first case was an outbreak of diarrhoea on a cruise ship.

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