Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #12, Winter 2004-2005]

Six Modern Plagues
By Mark Jerome Walters
Washington Island Press, 2003

Reviewed by Dori Knoff

In this interesting and insightful book, the author describes the history of six modern diseases and how the progression of these is affected by a complicated set of ecological circumstances. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the effects of the ecosystem on human health.

During the age of modern medicine and modern technology we have moved forward in creating advanced diagnoses and in some arenas improved treatments for many ailments. However, in the garden of the global ecosystem humans are merely a part of the large and sometimes complex cycle of life, disease, and death. In many cases no amount of modern intervention can save us from the fact that we live in a dynamic state of balance and imbalance. These imbalances can often be initiated by alterations that we make to our own environment (through the consumption and alteration of natural resources).

One of the chapters describes the progression of Mad Cow disease. It places the reader in the barn stall of the first farmhouse where Mad Cow was discovered and allows the reader to walk in the boots of the scientists who sort through the muck of this mysterious disease. The author explains how the rearrangement of natural systems -- including the composition of feed stock -- have caused grave health consequences for dairy farmers, cattle, and the human consumers of beef.

As he further explores the links between agricultural disease and human disease, we learn that disease cannot only be related in different species but that disease can spread between species. This is something that public health officials fear and Hollywood writers embrace.

Other plagues include HIV/AIDS (the transmission of a monkey-borne virus through contact with body fluids), an antibiotic-resistant Salmonella (derived from livestock agriculture), Lyme disease (a presumed outbreak due to massive deforestation), Hantavirus (linked to climactic changes), and West Nile Virus (an international virus transferred through insects producing encephalitis-like symptoms).

Although the author describes the scenarios in a lyrical style, the facts are there for readers to analyze when considering the basis for these epidemics.


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Dori Knoff is a writer living in Cambridge, Wisconsin.

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