cover image Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History

Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History

Vidya Krishnan. PublicAffairs, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-1-5417-6846-8

Journalist Krishnan debuts with a wide-ranging history of tuberculosis and a stark warning that the disease is mounting “a frightening comeback.” Starting in the 1800s, Krishnan documents anxiety in England and America over tuberculosis, then known as consumption, and details the contributions made by doctors Ignaz Semmelweis, Joseph Lister, and Robert Koch to the acceptance of germ theory and the eventual development and mass distribution of antibiotics that greatly reduced tuberculosis deaths in the middle of the 20th century. Krishnan then shifts focus to modern-day India, where the colonial and postcolonial development of Mumbai created overcrowded and unsanitary conditions ripe for tuberculosis to propagate and spread. She also explains how the weakened immune systems of HIV-AIDS patients in the 1980s and ’90s provided the bacterium with ideal circumstances for proliferation, how the “overuse of misuse” of antibiotics and the existence of “clinical deserts” in poorer parts of the world have allowed drug-resistant tuberculosis to spread, and how groups including the World Health Organization try to contain disease outbreaks in the face of conflicting national goals and commercial interests. Shot through with tragic and inspiring stories of patients and doctors who have battled against the disease, this is a bracing look at what might be the next public health catastrophe. Agent: Kelly Falconer, Asia Literary Agency. (Feb.)