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The drama of zoonoses

MY CAREER choice was based on non-fiction reading as a teenager. Starting with American journalist Berton Roueché, who adapted material from the terse Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report covering investigations by the US Centers for Disease Control, I have been reading popular accounts of epidemics for a while.

And epidemics fascinated the earliest writers: pestilence as one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Bible; Daniel DeFoe’s experimental Journal of the plague year, mistaken for reality by 18th century readers; 20th century disease “biographies”, with Hans Zinsser’s Rats, lice and history (on typhus), and countless others since. Australia has contributed to this literature, of course; Frank Bowden’s Gone viral is a recent example.

For such books, short words are preferred in the title — certainly not “epidemiology”. There is Robin Cook’s Vector, or the current entry into this crowded field, David Quammen’s Spillover, which was nominated for a 2013 Pulitzer Prize.

For me, popular epidemiology in a bookshop is always worth perusing, but is only purchased when necessary. What moved me from perusal to purchase in this…