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You Should Read These Three Books on History and Infectious Diseases


René F. Najera, DrPH

April 19, 2019

If you want to learn a little more about history in general, and infectious diseases in particular, I highly recommend the following three books. Please note that I do not receive any kind of compensation for recommending them. They’re just books that cover historical aspects of infectious diseases in the United States and abroad, including some stories related to vaccines. Enjoy…

“When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America and the Fears They Have Unleashed” by Howard Markel, MD, PhD

Physician and historian talks about six epidemics that arrived to the United States via travelers: tuberculosis, bubonic plague, trachoma, typhus, cholera, and AIDS. Through the stories behind these six epidemics, Dr. Markel explains how quarantine efforts failed, and how some of those efforts were inhumane at worst and inequitable at best. Not surprisingly, though everyone is susceptible to disease, it was only the marginalized minorities being mistreated over being a perceived public health threat. For example, Jews arriving in New York City were not allowed into the country if they had any signs of trachoma, an eye infection… Unless money was exchanged, or other arrangements made with the customs authorities. Similarly, the whole of Chinatown in San Francisco was quarantined for fears of bubonic plague, with little to no attention was given to the rats that could go to and from all parts of the city, but those who were of a certain social status were not included in the quarantine.

“Virus Hunter: Thirty Years of Battling Hot Viruses Around the World” by CJ Peters, MD, and Mark Olshaker

This book is as much an autobiography of as it is a story of how very deadly viruses can (and do) jump on some sort of vector (like a rhesus monkey) and travel to populated areas of the world (like Reston, Virginia). Dr. Peters tells us of his background in medicine and how he started to work in some very remote parts of the world in tracking down diseases that are the stuff of nightmares. You’ll learn the origins of the arenaviruses and why they are named so. You’ll also learn about Ebola Reston, and how that could have gone badly. The book ends on an interesting note, a sort of warning from Dr. Peters about what could happen if a very infectious disease becomes very deadly and then arrives in a very populated city, of which there are more and more in the world.

“Polio: An American Story” by David Oshinsky, PhD

In this book, historian uses the documents and writings of different people living during the polio epidemic in the United States in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, all the way to when the polio vaccine was developed. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2006. Mr. Oshinsky posits in his writing that the epidemic was more of a “boogeyman” given the relatively low number of cases in the United States. Still, the advances made in that era have led the way to the near eradication of a very serious illness from the human population.


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