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Review of “Spillover”

Throughout 2012, thousands of dead pigs were found in the Huangpu River, outside Shanghai. This was followed by more than 1,000 dead ducks rotting in the Nanhe River of Sichuan in Southwest China. By the end of March, carcasses of more pigs, ducks and swans, washed up on the riverbanks across China. When two Shanghai men diagnosed with a new strain of Bird Flu, dubbed H7N9, died, it was no coincidence. Could the virus be zoonotic (i.e. originated from animals)? Could it have been spread by migratory birds from Lake Qinghai that travel to Southeast Asia, Africa or Europe? Is this the next big pandemic that spills over to humans?

This is scary stuff! When SARS struck in 2003 a tenth of the 8,000 global victims of infection died. While Quammen’s objective is not to illicit fear, he raises important concerns regarding the tendency for microbes to mutate inside their hosts and spread through the air or contaminated meat and water. The recent outbreaks of new zoonotic diseases, as well as the recurrence and spread of old ones, are part of a larger pattern, and Quammen argues that humanity is responsible, at least in part, for generating this pattern. The book is a valuable resource for researchers seeking vaccines designed to combat the spread of viruses. It will also be a useful tool for regulators of the food industry. We already know about the contamination of beef with horse meat in Europe, but every day people visit monkey temples in India, bat caves in East Africa, race tracks in Australia, or dairy farms in Netherlands, and all of these locations are potential epicentres for new and emerging zoonotic diseases.

Quammen, an award-winning writer and frequent contributor to National Geographic, attempts to answer these questions. He travels with scientists to challenging locales where he partakes in feats such as trapping monkeys in Bangladesh or bats in China. In the process, Quammen explores deadly viruses, like Hendra, spilling over from bats to horses to humans in Australia, or Ebola killing gorillas in Central Africa. In Bangladesh, it’s the search for the Nipah virus, which made the move from bats to humans. Quammen imaginatively recreates the story of how chimpanzees in Cameroon carrying HIV led to the spread of AIDS among human populations. He then analyzes the journey of that virus to Congo, Zaire, Haiti, Asia and North America.

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