SECRET AGENTS: The Menace of Emerging Infections

Madeline Drexler, Author . National Academy/Joseph Henry $24.95 (300p) ISBN 0-309-07638-2

During the first half of the 20th century, Western medicine seemed poised to conquer infectious disease. Improvements in sanitation as well as the development of antibiotics and vaccines promised significant hope for eliminating such scourges as TB, typhoid, pneumonia, smallpox and malaria. Yet, as medical journalist and former Boston Globe columnist Drexler points out in this engrossing overview, the emergence of AIDS, Ebola, deadly new influenza strains and lethal E. coli contamination show that "we face today... what we have always faced: one plague... after another, and usually several at once." Drawing from numerous published sources and some 250 interviews, Drexler explains how viruses and bacteria, which have an insurmountable evolutionary edge over humans, remain a constant threat to human health—even implicated, according to some recent theories, in chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer. Ironically, modern conveniences have also made life easier for pathogens: air travel has allowed diseases to cross geographic barriers; mass production of food has led to salmonellosis; overuse of broad-spectrum antibiotics has bred resistant strains of germs. Drexler is skilled at making the biology of pathogens accessible to general readers. There is, however, significant overlap with other recent books about infectious disease, most notably Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague. Still, as bioterrorism (which Drexler addresses) becomes a growing threat, her calls for funding public health organizations and global disease-fighting coalitions are worth reiterating. (Apr.)

Reviewed on: 02/04/2002
Release date: 02/01/2002
Genre: Nonfiction
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