Courtesy Reuters

Runaway Diseases: And the Human Hand behind Them

In This Review

Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism

By Sheldon Watts
Yale University Press, 1998
400 pp. $35.00
Purchase

Viruses, Plagues, and History

By Michael B. A. Oldstone
Oxford University Press, 1998
203 pp. $25.00
Purchase

In the wake of Richard Preston's 1994 thriller The Hot Zone, a best-seller in 26 countries, the publishing industry has released a torrent of books about emerging disease threats. Nearly every major fighter of the Ebola virus has published a memoir, several scientists have produced warning missives, and fiction writers from Stephen King to Tom Clancy have made microbes prominent plot devices.

Amid the plethora of paranoia-inducing publications, barely a handful offer insights that could guide public policy, particularly from a global point of view. And practically speaking, the only relevant point of view for microbial issues is global, since bacteria, parasites, and viruses exploit appropriate ecospheres wherever they find them, regardless of national boundaries.

Despite the chatter on everything from "mad cow disease" to mutant strains of the Ebola virus, there are serious causes for concern. The Clinton administration has formally designated emerging infectious diseases as a national security issue. That has drawn big political players such as the CIA, the National Security Council, the Defense and State Departments, and the U.S. Agency for International Development into an arena that before the mid-1990s was the province of scientists.

The most recent entrants in the debate on emerging diseases are the historian Sheldon Watts of American University in Cairo and the virologist Michael Oldstone of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Watts, who has spent his career in Nigeria and Egypt, sees humanity's relations with the microbes from the side of the victims of European imperialism. In his analysis-which is indebted to William McNeill's 1976 landmark Plagues and Peoples-most of the scourges of the last millennium are direct results of Christian or European cultural and colonial practices. In contrast, Oldstone, a prominent American laboratory scientist, pays only cursory attention to the socioeconomic foundations of disease transmission, focusing his optimistic work on the triumphs of Western science. His book consciously emulates Paul De Kruif's gem, Microbe Hunters, although it is not nearly as strong.

Both Watts' and Oldstone's books leave a

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