REVIEW: Defeating the Ministers of Death by David Isaacs

In brief: The history of immunisation and how it has eradicated some diseases and minimised the impact of others.

The good: Explained very well.

The not-so-good: Sometimes I got a bit tired of scientific definitions being explained – but then this book is designed for the non-scientist.

Why I chose it: Continuing my reading of pandemics into the vaccination stage.

Year: 2019

Pages: 357

Publisher: Harper Collins

Rating: 9 out of 10

As readers of my blog would be aware, I’ve been reading about pandemics over the past year in order to educate myself further. Seeking something a little different but in the same vein, I’ve moved on to the history of vaccination. Although this book was published before the current COVID-19 pandemic, it still offers a great insight into the history of vaccination and how it has changed the course of many infectious diseases across the world for the better. While many pandemic books have covered the diseases, this book covers the journey to an effective vaccination in more detail.

The book starts with how infection works and then how vaccination works. This is a little dry, particularly if you have a non-health/science background, but persevere as the book becomes a lot more interesting after that. Prof Isaacs does a great job in explaining all the technical/scientific terms in lay language, plus there is a glossary at the back if you get stuck. Diseases such as smallpox, polio, tetanus and diphtheria are all covered in detail as to why immunisation is important and how vaccines for these diseases were developed. It’s not just about the disease though, with chapters exploring when things went wrong and how anti-vaxxers think. It ends with a wishlist for the future, suggesting which diseases would benefit from vaccines.

The book is easy to understand, and told in a clear, factual manner that also takes in a lot of history. Many of these diseases were deadly before the advent of antibiotics, and others were still fatal in the modern era in both in developing and developed countries. It struck me how I’ve only seen one case of tetanus in my career (there are six or seven cases in Australia per year now), when not so long ago it would have been common. (I don’t even think I could diagnose half the diseases that are on the Australian National Immunisation Program – they are that rare, thanks to vaccination). It’s a story that effortlessly describes the degree of achievement in public health and infectious diseases in an accessible way. Read it and then double check that you’re up to date with your vaccinations here.

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