No doubt about it: 2019 Novel Coronovirus is scary. And unfortunately, the “novel” part of the name doesn’t mean it’s fiction.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2019 Novel Coronovirus (2019-nCoV) comes from the same large group of coronaviruses that include the common cold and other mild illnesses, as well as SARS and MERS. The CDC also states, “The potential public health threat posed by 2019-nCoV virus is high, both globally and to the United States. The fact that this virus has caused illness, including illness resulting in death, and sustained person-to-person spread in China is concerning.”
It’s not the first time that humanity has faced such a disease threat. And it won’t be the last.
For those seeking to learn more, these nonfiction books explore some of our species’s most recent battles against viruses and bacteria.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry
I had heard vaguely of the “Spanish flu” before reading this book, but The Great Influenza is an eye-opener. Unlike most seasonal flu strains, this one killed even the healthy young adults that normally escaped unscathed. Influenza moved swiftly around the world as infected soldiers mustered for World War I traveled from home town to port to battlefield, spreading influenza in their wake. Barry’s gripping history includes stories of towns who refused to let outsiders in for fear of infection, whole neighborhoods under quarantine, and overwhelmed hospitals. A chilling but not-sensationalized read.
I’m going to assume that you’ve already read The Hot Zone, Richard Preston’s 1994 blockbuster nonfiction bestseller about the initial Ebola outbreak. (And if not, I highly recommend it.) In Preston’s latest, he delves into the most recent Ebola outbreak, interviewing those on the front lines. Preston takes pains at the beginning of both books to make sure the reader knows they are nonfiction. A good thing, for the narrative is as unnerving and propulsive as any thriller.
The Coming Plague: Newly Emergent Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett
Sometimes the most frightening thing about these books is how prescient the writers were. Garrett’s book, first published in 1994, covers a wide range of diseases that have recently wreaked havoc on humanity—Legionnaire’s disease, Lassa fever, AIDS, Ebola—and posits theories on what the future of disease will look like.
The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug by Steffanie Strathdee and Thomas Patterson
Not about viruses but about bacteria, The Perfect Predator is the memoir of an epidemiologist whose husband first appears to have food poisoning, but then his case quickly takes a turn for the worse. He’s infected by an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and the only potential cure seems to be a virus that has the ability to kill the bacteria. A page-turning search for a cure in the most unlikely of places.
The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator by Timothy C. Winegard
No one likes mosquitoes, but history professor Winegard thinks that we should be blaming the mosquito for a whole lot more than irritating us at backyard barbecues. Citing ancient Chinese texts, Homer, and other historical documents, Winegard shows that the diseases spread by mosquitoes could have turned the outcomes of major battles, thinned populations to allow outsiders to move in, and made some malaria-resistant people more valuable as slaves. A fascinating new way of looking at the history of humanity.
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