DISCOVERING TUBERCULOSIS, by Christian W. McMillen

23360226

Discovering Tuberculosis: A Global History, 1900 to Present
By Christian W. McMillen
Yale University Press – 30th June 2015
ISBN 9780300190298 – 352 Pages – Hardback
Source: NetGalley


For now, just a short posting review of this, as I will be writing a more complete review soon for incorporation into a Small Things Considered piece on the topic of current tuberculosis vaccine research, addressing some of the science behind what this book addresses from a primarily historical perspective.
While the author of this is a historian and the realm of history is the primary focus of this book, it obviously contains some medical and scientific details. But it should be easily accessible for any lay reader. As a microbiologist familiar more with the bacteria than the disease and its treatment history I found a lot in this that I hadn’t been aware of, particularly in the earlier periods when Tb was frequently thought to be more easily contracted by non-white groups of people, such as the American Indians.
The book covers these early views steeped in racism and colonialism through the data that argued against such interpretations. It then covers the development of the Tb vaccine and consistent questions/uncertainties of its effectiveness. Finally the book covers the more modern – but at this point hardly new – threat of Tb infection in the face of HIV. Throughout, McMillen addresses the question of why Tb continues to be a scourge despite a century of global health efforts.
Overall McMillen provides a good historical coverage of the topic. At times I was annoyed at repetitiveness in the text, and I would have appreciated both more coverage of  future prospects for Tb vaccines, and more of a scientific discussion of the issues behind this whole history in general. I would recommend this for a general audience with interest in history, medicine, and/or global humanitarian health efforts. I will post a link to what I write for Small Things Considered after its publication.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Virus Hunt: The Search for the Origin of HIV, by Dorothy H. Crawford

Virus Hunt: The Search for the Origin of HIV, by Dorothy H. Crawford
Publisher: Oxford University Press
AISN: B00CXOU16Y
224 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

Other books, such as “And the Band Played On” have well-covered the story of HIV and AIDS breaking into public consciousness throughout the world in the early 1980s, its social and political effects, and the response of the medical and scientific community. Here, however, the focus is on the actual appearance of HIV in the world – long before we humans were aware of its existence. Where in Africa did HIV come from? When did it first arise to infect humans? How did it get from a virus that infects monkeys and apes to one that infects humans? I have even heard people ask, “If HIV is gotten through sex, then that means someone must have had sex with a monkey at some point!” Well, this is untrue, so if you ever thought something like this, then please please do read this book. These are the questions addressed by Crawford, and their answers have ramifications both for how AIDS seemed to suddenly spring out of nowhere into our human lives and for how we should consider future viral pandemics.

The answers to those questions take the reader through chapters that blend medicine, science, ecology, evolution, and the sociopolitical history of West-Central Africa. Unless you are already an expert on the latest scientific findings on the origin of the HIV, you will probably learn a great deal that is new. The book begins by briefly introducing and dispelling one of several misconceptions or ‘mis-informations’ about AIDS, namely the erroneous assertion that AIDS is not caused by HIV. Crawford then introduces the topic of related viruses that infect are evolutionary relatives (the simian immunodeficiency viruses or SIVs) and begins to set the stage for explaining how we know where AIDS generally comes from. She then focuses in with each chapter to address more specific matters that recent scientific experiments have brought to light, such as what kind of ape the different types of HIV variants came from, down to the specific area and people who were likely the first infected back around the early 1900s, approximately. The book concludes with a molecular discussion of HIV and how that relates to its origins and dissemination and a final discussion on the nature of viral pandemics in general, with future prospects considered.

The copy I read is an unfinished proof, and I assume misprints will be caught and changed. However, the start of the book in particular was hard to get into due to some very awkward sentence structures and several sentences that were vague or grammatically problematic. Beyond the first chapter this issue went away, and it may not even be a problem in the final product.

Crawford knows the material, and she does a fine job of distinctly conveying information that we know as scientific fact from that which leads to educated guesses or downright conjecture. However, her familiarity with the material may also be an impediment for the general reader who does not have any prior knowledge of virology or HIV. Many concepts are discussed in bits throughout the book, only being completely explained later, and many of the more scientific sections can be daunting and dry to read for a nonspecialist (such as the myriad SIV and HIV variants and subtle – though important – differences). Her writing becomes far less technical and more ‘natural’ sounding when she discusses matters outside of direct virology, such as history or anecdotes.

I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in HIV or those curious to learn just how a virus can go from being in a population of non-human primates for centuries, only to cross suddenly into the human population with devastating consequences decades later. If you are concerned if just such an event could happen again then there could be no better volume to read, despite its detailed technical portions.

Four Stars out of Five

Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Peter C. Doherty

19170663Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Peter C. Doherty
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780199986781
272 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
Source: NetGalley

Nobel Prize winning immunologist and veterinary surgeon Doherty writes a comprehensive and succinct review of things involving disease pandemics: what pandemics are, which have occurred, which may likely occur, and what governments and individuals are doing/can do to combat them. To form a foundation for the reader Doherty first gives a quick primer on molecular biology, viruses/bacteria, and immunology basics. He then delves into discussing the major pandemic threat of influenza before moving onto others, like HIV.

What impressed me about this volume is that it is written in a particularly laid-back fashion – almost stream-of-consciousness at points, obviously geared towards the layman with only a bit of background in microbiology. As part of Oxford University Press’ “What Everyone Needs to Know” series the book is organized as a series of question/answers to apparently aid in the comfort of this being a book for the general audience.

The downsides to the book stem from this organization, I think. Many of the questions posed are quite simple, like asking what the difference is between a virus and a bacteria. But the ‘answer’ portion goes far beyond addressing that – into myriad other topics not directly related. It therefore ends up feeling like one is reading something from a political debate, where the question is used to spring off into whatever topic or aside seems to come to mind. This ends up making portions of the book – particularly the first chapters appear rather unorganized to me.

In a few spots the scientific detail or issues raised appear to go beyond what I would deem really necessary (such as the PCR descriptions), but this was a rare occurrence. The densest scientific details can be lost on some readers without the overall important messages of the book getting lost. In the end if you are unfamiliar with what pandemics are, if you can’t explain what immunizations are and why we should get them, if you don’t know what the differences are between viruses and bacteria (and their treatments), then you should read this and learn some really essential information that is not only important for yourself but could be important for your responsibility in sharing this planet with other humans.

Four Stars out of Five