Viruses, Plagues, and History

By Michael B. A. Oldstone | Go to book overview

PREFACE

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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