Let’s keep an eye on wild creatures. As we besiege them, as we corner them, as we exterminate them and eat them, we’re getting their diseases.
–David Quammen, Spillover
I find myself referring to David Quammen’s Spillover quite a bit lately, as the most severe outbreak of Ebola in history spreads through West Africa. An Ebola-infected doctor has returned to Atlanta for treatment, and all sorts of questions are popping up about zoonotic diseases and their effects. This outbreak has acted as an instant reminder that we all need to care about zoonotic diseases, and that we can’t dismiss them as the concerns of health-care workers or those on other continents.
David Quammen is an award-winning science writer, and Spillover, as an almost 600 page exploration of zoonotic diseases, would be an unbearable read if it wasn’t for Quammen’s honest but bold ability to weave the stories together. Rather than coming across as a textbook, despite the almost incomprehensibly complicated subject matter presented at times, this reads as true thriller, perhaps the scariest thriller you’ll ever read.
Quammen meets brilliant, interesting researchers who are incredibly afraid, and the story of the Hendra virus is told not through numbers or complicated terms but through the story of that first dead mare, Drama Series. Who found her, and what happened after that.
Spillover reveals a world in which humans are pushing up against the wilds once left to animals, and animals are, in turn, making us sick. There’s Drama Series and her untimely demise. And then a chimp on a river, and the agonizing, winding story of SIV and HIV and the possible emergence of AIDS. Throughout these tales, research citations, developments from history, and thoughts from the scientific community create a full picture.
I never understood how exactly zoonotic diseases worked until reading this book. I never understood why Bird Flu was called Bird Flu, or even that the flu came from birds at all. I didn’t know what all those numbers and letters meant that go along with the next flu threat, labels ascribed to some sort of emerging potential pandemic. Spillover taught me the basics of all this, what exactly is rational fear and what doesn’t make sense or seems to be media hype, and even why getting my flu shot each year is so important.
Quammen manages to convey huge amounts of information to his reader without losing the story’s gripping narrative. As the outbreak continues in Africa, and as Ebola lands in Atlanta, albeit in a highly controlled environment, it seems a very good idea to educate yourself on the basic ideas of zoonotic disease.