Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize | A New York Times Editor's Choice
“[A] grounded, bracingly intelligent study” —Nature
Prizewinning science journalist Sonia Shah presents a startling examination of the pandemics that have ravaged humanity—and shows us how history can prepare us to confront the most serious acute global health emergency of our time.
Over the past fifty years, more than three hundred infectious diseases have either emerged or reemerged, appearing in places where they’ve never before been seen. Years before the sudden arrival of COVID-19, ninety percent of epidemiologists predicted that one of them would cause a deadly pandemic sometime in the next two generations. It might be Ebola, avian flu, a drug-resistant superbug, or something completely new, like the novel virus the world is confronting today. While it was impossible to predict the emergence of SARS-CoV-2—and it remains impossible to predict which pathogen will cause the next global outbreak—by unraveling the stories of pandemics past we can begin to better understand our own future, and to prepare for what it holds in store.
In Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, Sonia Shah interweaves history, original reportage, and personal narrative to explore the origins of epidemics, drawing parallels between cholera—one of history’s most deadly and disruptive pandemic-causing pathogens—and the new diseases that stalk humankind today. She tracks each stage of cholera’s dramatic journey, from its emergence in the South Asian hinterlands as a harmless microbe to its rapid dispersal across the nineteenth-century world, all the way to its latest beachhead in Haiti. Along the way she reports on the pathogens now following in cholera’s footsteps, from the MRSA bacterium that besieges her own family to the never-before-seen killers coming out of China’s wet markets, the surgical wards of New Delhi, and the suburban backyards of the East Coast.
Delving into the convoluted science, strange politics, and checkered history of one of the world’s deadliest diseases, Pandemic is a work of epidemiological history like no other, with urgent lessons for our own time.
“Shah proves a disquieting Virgil, guiding us through the hells ruled by [infectious diseases] . . . the power of Shah's account lies in her ability to track simultaneously the multiple dimensions of the public-health crises we are facing.” —The Chicago Tribune
In this absorbing, complex, and ominous look at the dangers posed by pathogens in our daily lives, science journalist Shah (The Fever) cautions that there are no easy solutions. Of particular note is the challenge of tracking those pathogens that remain uncontained and which could overtake humans in a pandemic. As an example, Shah tracks the waterborne Vibrio cholerae bacterium from its home in the southwest Indian Ocean as it radiated from China and India to Paris in 1832, and then sailed to the U.S. with emigrants from cholera-plagued Europe heading to the eastern coast of North America at the time there were 5,800 reported cases and nearly 3,000 deaths in New York City alone. Shah then meticulously dissects the conditions that made cholera's transmission so effective and new outbreaks inevitable, including filthy water, overcrowding, political corruption and inaction, scapegoating, and even the expedited expansion of the human population by the harnessing of fossil fuels. "For most of our history, we've been unaware of pathogens' role in our lives," Shah writes, adding that most of the challenges still lay ahead. Shah's warning is certainly troubling, and this important medical and social history is worthy of attention and action.