Book Review: The Next Pandemic
On the Front Lines Against
Humankind’s Gravest Dangers
by Ali S. Khan (with William Patrick)
Public Affairs, 2016
Dr. Ali Khan (with his co-writer William Patrick) has written a garrulous, very affable book about two out of four of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: The Next Pandemic tells the gripping and often very entertaining adventures stories Khan lived through in his twenty years working for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, jetting off to some of the most godforsaken remote corners of the developed and undeveloped world in order to don protective garb and tromp around looking for Ground (and Patient) Zero for such horrors as Ebola, SARS, Zika, and a host of other diseases that have the potential to flash out from garbage heaps and chicken coops to engulf thousand or hundreds of thousand of people.
A large part of Khan’s book is taken up with these adventure stories, several of which exhibit the welcoming burnish of repeated tellings. But underneath the book’s friendly raconteurish tone, there are very real nightmares being discussed, often with a clarity that’s both praiseworthy and alarming. His summaries of his microbial foes are without exception fascinating, as when he tells us that anthrax spores, which are found on every continent, “come in a size that’s just right for penetrating deep into your lungs.” The sheer persistence of this particular nightmare ought to give the smug certainty of the modern era pause:
While anthrax does not spread directly from one infected animal or person to another, the spores can move around all too easily on clothing or shoes, or just on the wind. The body of an animal that had active anthrax at the time of death is highly infectious, and spores remain at burial sites for decades. Disturbed gravesites of infected animals have caused reinfection after more than seventy years.
And running throughout Khan’s good-natured book is warning of a sterner kind, a recurring note chastising the most energetic ally of every infectious disease on Earth: ignorance, the ultimate bacillus, which has incubated in mankind from the beginning and which Khan sees as undergoing something of its own pandemic in the 21st century:
In 2011, during the Influenza H1N1p outbreak, Fox News accused the government of rushing the vaccine to market without testing it. Then when there was a shortage, they accused the government of not supplying it fast enough. Or when Playboy bunnies say things like, “The idea that vaccines are a primary cause of autism is not as crackpot as some might wish.” Yes, Jenny, it is a crackpot idea that you and others of your ilk have promoted that has not a single shred of proof and been refuted by numerous studies. It’s a no-win situation when the only metric that some news organizations care about is attracting viewers. And dissemination of these anti-science myths is the type of hype that will not serve us well when an emerging infection decides to really show us who’s boss.
Khan, who’s now dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska, has managed (with Patrick’s help) to meld the two halves of his book – globetrotting adventure story and public health advisory – into a whole that will keep specialists and non-specialists alike reading. And his ultimate faith in humanity’s ability to see the big picture and save itself from the worst the viral and bacterial world has to throw at it is encouraging. Not entirely believable, perhaps, but encouraging.