REVIEW: The Pandemic Century by Mark Honigsbaum

In brief: An incredibly detailed look at selected contagious diseases, starting with the Spanish flu and ending with COVID-19.

The good: It goes into so much detail, and there are diseases covered that don’t get much of a mention in other similar texts.

The not-so-good: The print is really small in my copy!

Why I chose it: I like to read about infectious diseases, the research and the response.

Year: 2020

Pages: 357

Publisher: WH Allen (Penguin)

Setting: All over the world

Rating: 10 out of 10

I’ve read a lot of pandemic and infectious diseases books over the last two years, and I have to say that The Pandemic Century is right at the top of the list. What it doesn’t cover in breadth of diseases, it covers in great depth and detail. It’s interesting in the way it combines the science and the public reactions to various outbreaks.

The book opens with the Spanish flu, but it’s the later chapters that really grabbed my interest, simply because they haven’t been covered in other books. There’s the outbreak of plague in California followed by psittacosis and Legionnaire’s disease. (I did not know the story on how it got the name). The other chapters are devoted to more recent and well-known epidemics and pandemics, such as Ebola, SARS, Zika and HIV/AIDS. The chapter on Zika was very interesting because I don’t think it’s been covered in as much detail elsewhere. As is customary with pandemic books these days, this edition (2020) mentions COVID-19 in its early stages. It’s quite encouraging to see how far science has come since then, in terms of research on the disease, vaccines and treatments.

What really sets The Pandemic Century apart is the level of research and detail. If you’re that kind of person, you can entertain friends and family with interesting facts about the diseases and treatment (e.g., Ebola is more likely to cause hiccups than other haemorrhagic diseases, why you should avoid nebulisers with aerosolised disease). The breakthroughs in research as well as the missteps are also well documented, as is the public response to ‘parrot fever’ and the ‘Philly killer’. It can be quite dramatic as the scenario unfolds, but I found this was toned down a lot with the more recent diseases. My only complaint was that my copy has tiny print, so while it was easy to carry round, it was at times difficult to read for long periods. (Although, I did drop the book during chapters to find out more about the diseases – a sure sign of a piqued interest!) This will satisfy the need to read about these diseases in more depth, in an engaging, easy to read fashion.

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