David Quammen – Spillover

This article was previously featured in another part of the website. That part was removed so it is now part of the regular blog.

I think it would be a fitting beginning to start this post by writing about an author – an author who so eloquently writes about science that even after only reading the first chapters of his book “Spillover“, I am totally mesmerized by his writing style. That author is David Quammen.

The naturalists among you may recognize that name. He has written many great articles in National Geographic, often going on long trips with researchers to document their studies so that everyone at home can take part. More importantly though, he is famous for writing “The Song of the Dodo” a book about island biogeography that among others, has inspired many of my friends. I have yet to read it but after starting “Spillover”, I am more interested than ever.

“Spillover” is a very different book from “The Song of the Dodo” but hopefully at least as inspirational. For you to understand the book, I must first start with the title itself and the scary subtitle that goes with it “Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic”.

Spillover is another word for zoonosis, a much more science’y sounding word that explains the subtitle. Zoonosis is┬ás an infectious disease that is transmitted between species (sometimes by a vector) from animals other than humans to humans or from humans to other animals (Wikipedia). Out of all infectious diseases 61% have been found to be zoonotic and if you understand how much contact we as a species have with other animals, this would be properly scary to you.

When you start to look at zoonosis in more detail, horrifying media headlines popup with infamous names such as HIV, AIDS; SARS, Hendra, Anthrax, Ebola, Hanta virus etc. somewhere in them. Even the swine flu that caused much fuss some years ago has its place in this list.

Quammen, however, doesn’t set out to scare. He wants to educate and this is very apparent in his writing style. He talks about the humans, the animals, the dead, the living. He follows scientists, travels, searches for clues and finally puts together a book that is frankly beautiful. This makes me very happy because in all honesty – this book is important and it would be a shame if it were boring.

As Quammen himself brings out, these diseases are not just unlucky occurrences that have no relations – they are a mark of the zeitgeist. As our population has reached 7 billion and we are moving more and more rapidly into jungles in search of food and land, we are increasingly in contact with animals and pathogens that can spark new epidemics and pandemics. This is why we need this book – we need to know about these past incidences of zoonosis to understand how to prepare for a future where it may be much more commonplace. At the very least – the book is worth a read.