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.

Surprised reader.
Germs are terrifying

Udo Weber/iStockphoto.

The germs have been busy. In the United States this year alone, we’ve lost people both to old enemies such as whooping cough and to relatively new spillovers from other animals, such as hantavirus and West Nile virus, which killed more than 240 Americans this year, a record. Diseases we've come to think of as utterly foreign, such as dengue fever, are spreading through the United States. Meanwhile, further afield but far too near, we’ve seen two separate Ebola outbreaks; one of Marburg; alarming blips of Q fever; an unsettling and unsettled game of whack-a-mole in the Mideast with a new SARS-like coronavirus; and the news that because gonorrhea has now developed resistance to yet another antibiotic, we possess just one that still gives pause to this old intimate. If that drug stops working before we develop a better one, expect a steady drip of ugly cases.

More bad-bug news pops up almost weekly, and it stands to get worse for a while, maybe for decades. More bacterial strains will develop antibiotic resistance, and our continuing disruption of virus-rich and fungus-rich ecosystems worldwide will invite yet more pathogens to make us part of their life cycles. We will live increasingly in a world where you might die because a bat happened to sleep in a certain tree in Tanzania or a particular robin landed in your backyard.

Pandemic diseases hold an irresistible allure for both writers and readers, as they involve threats both universal and personal, deep scientific mysteries from cellular to ecosystem levels, and urgent scientific sleuthing with high stakes. If the subject sometimes lends itself to oversimplified and sensationalistic journalism, it has also inspired a bounty of writing that is riveting while being thoughtful, nuanced, and deeply informed. And this work comes in every form and length, from 140-character tweets to 600-page global tours.

Here I offer a guide to the best of this work. I’ve drawn from my own reading and from the suggestions of top infectious-disease writers (more on them shortly). We’ll start long, with books, and end, as we should, with tweeted expirations of germ-inflected wisdom.

Best Books

We face an embarrassment of riches here, and if it’s hard to know where to start, it’s easy to name a fivesome that will immerse you in the drama of pandemics both past and future while giving a fine understanding of the science. 

121228_PANDEMIC_PlagueBooks

Leading the way almost 20 years ago, and still absolutely trenchant today, is Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, which vividly and judiciously reports the global forces creating a new infectious age. It remains essential reading, with astounding prescience.

Warm from the presses, meanwhile, comes David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic—one of the year’s best books of any kind. This rich, engrossing work entrances as much with its darting literary elegance and deep humanity as with its exquisitely measured, layered reveal of the global strands binding us to a world of beauty and death.

Equally riveting is Maryn McKenna’s way-too-close-to-home SuperBug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA. This bacterium (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is everywhere these days, including, perhaps, on your keyboard and almost certainly on your nose. As McKenna makes vivid, its spread and its increasing resistance to antibiotics can turn a routine cut or hospital visit into a deadly saga.

Finally, there are the classics Microbe Hunters, Paul de Kruif’s 1934 account of how the bug-hunters got started, and John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, which makes scary reading anytime near flu season.

Longreads

"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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