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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Patient Zero: Solving the Mysteries of Deadly Epidemics, written by Marilee Peters. Annick Press, 2014. $14.95 ages 12 and up

"Why were two doctors trying to tempt a mosquito to bite them? Although neither had much faith left in the experiment they were trying, they had come to Cuba a little over a month before in order to find the cause of yellow fever, one of the most feared and deadly diseases of the 19th century."

With the outbreak of Ebola in the news every day, and with number of deaths in West Africa having risen beyond 9000, I found reading this book fascinating. Studying the causes and control of diseases within a population has led to amazing discoveries throughout history:

"Across the world today, our defenders against epidemics are the scientists who strive to unravel the mysteries behind these deadly outbreaks. They search for clues that can tell us how a disease outbreak started, how it spreads and what puts people at risk of getting sick. We call these scientists who work on understanding and stopping disease outbreaks epidemiologists."

It may not sound like the kind of medicine you would like to pursue, but reading Ms. Peters' excellent account of seven epidemics throughout history shows how this significant field of medicine has changed and improved lives. Those mysteries included are:  the bubonic plague in London (1665); the cholera epidemic in London (1854); yellow fever in Cuba (1900); the typhoid cases in New York City in (1906); the influenza pandemic (1918-1919); Ebola virus in Zaire (1976); and AIDS in California (1980).

Each section begins with an imagined version of what might have happened and how the outbreak affected families and communities. Other features include speculation about the cause, how scientific minds gathered information to predict outcomes, and information boxes that offer further information about the epidemic being described. Middle and high school students will find much to capture their attention as the writing is accessible and engaging, the mysteries concerning the illnesses are many, and the growth of research is well documented.

Always on the lookout for 'Patient Zero' - the first person to have contracted the disease - scientists worked tirelessly to improve their knowledge and were chastised for the work they were doing. They were a determined lot and have done much to help solve some of the issues that epidemics spawn.

"To this day, no one knows how the six-month-old baby got cholera in the first place. But thanks to John Snow and Henry Whitehead, people came to understand how Vibrio cholerae from Frances' diapers infected an entire neighborhood. The epidemic was a terrible tragedy, but from it the world learned how future epidemics of cholera could be prevented."

We are reminded throughout this well researched and very informative book that millions of people owe their lives to the pioneers who made a difference at the time they were dealing with the seven epidemics here mentioned. We are thankful to each one of them today, and to the many who continue their work to keep world citizens healthy and strong.

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