“Spillover” by David Quammen

Regular readers don’t need to be told that I’m a bit obsessed with zoonotic disease. It’s what I study, and it’s a big part of what I teach. I run a Center devoted to the investigation of emerging diseases, and the vast majority of all emerging diseases are zoonotic. I have an ongoing series of posts collecting my writings on emerging diseases, and far too many papers in electronic or paper format in my office to count. Why the fascination? Zoonotic diseases have been responsible for many of mankind’s great plagues–the Black Death, the 1918 “Spanish” flu pandemic, or more recently, HIV/AIDS. So you can imagine my delight when I read about Spillover, a new book by David Quammen on zoonotic diseases.

I’ve previously highlighted some of Quammen’s work on this site. That link goes to a 2007 story he wrote for National Geographic on “infectious animals,” which really serves as a preview to “Spillover,” introducing some of the concepts and stories that Quammen elaborates on in the book.

“Spillover” is wide-ranging, tackling a number of different infectious agents, including viruses like Nipah, Hendra, and Ebola; bacteria including Coxiella burnetii and Chlamydia psittaci; and parasites such as Plasmodium knowlesi, a zoonotic cause of malaria. HIV is a big part of the story; Quammen devotes the last quarter or so of the book to tracing the discovery and transmission of HIV from primates to humans, and from 1900 to present-day. He even takes the time to explain the basic reproductive number–something that’s not always a page-turner, but Quammen manages to do it well and without being too tangential to the rest of the story; much more of a Kate-Winslet-in-Contagion than Ben-Stein-in-Ferris Bueller delivery.

Indeed, “Spillover” is somewhat unique in that it doesn’t read quite like your typical pop science book. It’s really part basic infectious disease, part history, part travelogue. Quammen has spent a number of years as a correspondent for National Geographic, and it shows. The book is filled with not only well-documented research findings and interviews with scientists, but also with Quammen’s own experience in the field, which gives the book a bit of an Indiana Jones quality. In one chapter, he details his adventure tagging along with a research team to capture bats in China, entering a cave that “felt a little like being swallowed through the multiple stomachs of a cow.” This was after an earlier dinner in which he describes his encounters with the an appetizer of the “world’s stinkiest fruit” (I’ll keep the description of the smell to myself) with congealed pig’s blood for a main dish (bringing to mind the scooping out of monkey’s brains in “Temple of Doom”–and the various zoonotic diseases that could be associated with those, come to think of it).

Quammen’s book is an excellent, and entertaining, overview of the issues of zoonotic disease–why do they emerge? Where have they come from? How do they spread? The only thing that’s missing is more of a cohesive discussion about what to do about them. However, that’s rather understandable, as we certainly have less of a grasp of this question than we do about the others (and even with some of those, our knowledge is spotty at best). I hope “Spillover” will inspire another generation of future germ-chasers, as “The Coming Plague” did almost 20 years ago.