Viruses, Plagues, and History

Viruses, Plagues, and History

Viruses, Plagues, and History

Viruses, Plagues, and History

Synopsis

The story of viruses and the story of humanity have been intertwined since the dawn of history. The first small cities formed not only the cradle of civilization, but the spawning ground for the earliest viral epidemics, the first opportunity for viruses to find a home in the human herd. This is a story of fear and ignorance, as everything from demons and the wrath of the gods to minority groups have been blamed for epidemics from smallpox to yellow fever to AIDS. It is a story of grief and heartbreak, as hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, are wiped out in a single year. And it is a story of great bravery and sacrifice, as doctors and nurses put themselves in harm's way to combat yellow fever in Memphis and Ebola in Zaire, and as researchers risk their own lives to test theories of vaccines and the transmission of disease. Now, in Viruses, Plagues, and History, Michael B. A. Oldstone tells all these stories as he illuminates the history of the devastating diseases that have tormented humanity. Oldstone focuses his tale on a few of the most famous viruses humanity has battled, beginning with some we have effectively defeated, such as smallpox, polio, and measles. Nearly 300 million people were killed by smallpox in this century alone -- more than were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century combined. The author presents a vivid account of the long campaign against the virus, the insightful work of Edward Jenner, who created the smallpox vaccine from cowpox virus in 1796, and the monumental efforts of D. A. Henderson and an army of W.H.O. health care workers to finally eradicate smallpox. The smallpox virus remains the only organism that we have deliberately pushed to complete extinction in the wild. Oldstone then describes the fascinating viruses that have captured headlines in more recent years: Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers, which literally turn their victims' organs to a bloody pulp; the Hantavirus outbreaks in the southwestern United States and elsewhere; mad cow disease, a frightening illness made worse by government mishandling and secrecy; and, of course, AIDS, often called "the plague of our time." And he tells us of the many scientists watching and waiting even now for the next great plague, monitoring influenza strains to see whether the deadly variant from 1918 -- a viral strain that killed over 20 million people in 1918-1919, more than twice the military and civilian casualties of the First World War -- will make a comeback. Viruses have enormous power. They have wiped out cities, brought down dynasties, and helped destroy civilizations. But, as Michael Oldstone reveals, scientific research has given us the power to tame many of these viruses as well. Viruses, Plagues, and History shows us the panorama of humanity's long-standing conflict with our unseen viral enemies, from our successes to our continuing struggles. Oldstone's book is a vivid history of a fascinating field, and a highly reliable dispatch from a worker on the frontiers of this ongoing campaign.

Excerpt

This book was conceived in the spirit of Paul deKruif's book Microbe Hunters, which I first read in junior high school. His heroes were the great adventurers of medical science who engaged in a struggle to understand the unknown and relieve human suffering. In retrospect, those stories initiated the spark that led me to medical school and a career in biomedical research. From those opportunities, I came to know Hilary Koprowski, Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin, Tom Weller, Bob Gallo, Luc Montagnier, D. A. Henderson, Jordie Casals, Rob Webster, D. Carlton Gajdusek, Joe Gibbs, Stanley Prusiner, and Bruce Chesebro, all of whom figure in the stories told here about viral diseases.

In tracing the history of struggles to find each agent of these diseases, I have asked what was known from its initial description, what unique problems existed, what actions were the most critical in solving the problems, why these decisions were made, and at what point community and governmental support provided the essential resources. To accomplish this task, I selected as examples four viral diseases -- smallpox, yellow fever, measles, and poliomyelitis -- that science has harnessed despite the unrestrained devastation and misery they once caused. These success stories are contrasted with those of four viral infections that remain out of control -- Lassa fever virus, Ebola virus, Hantavirus, and human immunodeficiency virus -- and with the continuing threat from influenza, now reasonably contained but with the potential to revert to a worldwide pandemic disaster. I also tell the story of an unusual group of progressive neurologic disorders, the spongiform encephalopathies (scrapie, mad cow disease, Creutzfeldt -- Jakob disease), and the debate as to whether they are caused by a virus or a prion (protein). A common thread of fear, superstition, and irrational behavior runs through all ten stories, testifying to our human fallibility. However, the motivation and skill of scientists along with the right community and governmental support have led to important victories over some viral plagues, and there will be more.

This book commemorates the enormous magnitude of these achievements, perhaps too often forgotten. Recall that smallpox killed over 300 million people in the twentieth century alone and now has been eradicated. Measles, which once killed millions each year globally and still does so in . . .

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