The Best Stories About the Absolute Worst Diseases

Stopping the world's scariest diseases
Dec. 28 2012 12:42 PM

Pandemics Porn

Delicious, smart reads about dangerous, nasty germs.

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"The First Alert," from Maryn McKenna's SuperBug, tells of a 13-year-old boy's battle with MRSA. “Where Will the Next Pandemic Come From? And How Can We Stop It?,” in Popular Science, opens the puzzle box that David Quammen explores at more length in Spillover. In “The Hunt for the Origin of AIDS,” in the Atlantic, Jon Cohen sifts through AIDS-origin theories both well-founded and weird.

The Flu Hunters,” a classic piece by Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times Magazine, follows the hunt, far from over, to figure out how to prevent future flu pandemics on the scale of the one that killed 20 million to 50 million people in 1918. “Undead: The Rabies Virus Remains a Medical Mystery,” in Wired, an excerpt from the new book by Monica Murphy and Bill Wasik, Rabid, shows how bizarre this old affliction is; some of the comments are as unsettling as the story. Bruce Barcott's "Death at Yosemite,” in Outside, shows how zoonotic diseases such as the much more obscure hantavirus can pop up, suddenly and fatally, even in the most sublime settings.

Finally, “The Rise of Drug-Resistant Gonorrhea,” by Jerome Groopman at The New Yorker, has some unsettling news about the human pharynx. And his colleague Michael Specter, in “A Deadly Misdiagnosis,” shows how misguided attempts to fight tuberculosis—possibly the disease that most threatens us—may actually strengthen its hand. Don’t read this while you have a cough.

Breaking News and Analysis

Health and science sections of the New York Times, National Public Radio, and Reuters, as well as Science and Nature's news departments, all cover infectious disease pretty well. If you read those, you'll catch most of the big news, though it requires sieving out from other stories. (The Guardian's infectious-disease news tag does the sieving for you.)

To build your own filters, you can perform specific author/subject-tag searches at those and other publications, then bookmark the self-updating results. I've included such searches in the following links for the New York Times' Denise Grady; Nature's Declan Butler and Brendan Maher; NBC's Maggie Fox; Science's Jon Cohen and Martin Enserink; and the Canadian Press' Helen Branswell. All of these journalists do top-flight work. Branswell’s reporting, alas, goes criminally overlooked in the United States (except by other health journalists). She focuses with particular intensity on swine, bird, and seasonal flu, navigating their changes, overlaps, and frightening uncertainties with particular grace and foresight; she is my go-to for flu.

Those folks will get you the main goods. Meanwhile, as with many deep but narrow topics in today's media environment, the infectious-disease beat benefits greatly from a handful of blogs, including some written by journalists, that track back stories, side stories, and follow-ups with a detail and steadiness that mainstream media doesn’t allow. Two favorite blogs among bad-bug journalists are Humanosphere Health blog, kept by Tom Paulson, and the Guardian Health Blog, written by health editor Sarah Boseley.

Finally, freelance journalist and blogger Maryn McKenna is unmatched in reporting and contextualizing infectious-disease news with stories that’ll scare the antibodies out of you. (She also possesses a disturbingly cool radio voice.) The easiest way to follow McKenna is at her blog, Superbug. (Disclosure: She and I both blog for Wired.) She repeatedly sees the big in the big stories, from new coronaviruses to the CIA's lethally destructive fake-polio-vaccine boondoggle in Pakistan, before almost anyone else does. For a sample, see her Slate piece on dengue fever

Global Disease in 140

Finally, if you've dumped your RSS reader and newspaper home pages for Twitter, you're in luck, for many of the writers named above use Twitter to link to, curate, and discuss both their own and others' breaking coverage. Particularly sharp are Helen Branswell, Maryn McKenna, Laurie Garrett, Maggie Fox, David Quammen, Declan Butler, Brendan Maher, Jon Cohen, and Martin Enserink; and last but not least, Michael Coston, who blogs at Avian Flu Diary and tweets, indefatigably, as Fla_Medic.

David Dobbs is writing The Orchid and the Dandelion (Crown), a book exploring ideas about how genes and experience shape temperament, behavior, and fate. 


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