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A Field Guide to Germs
Cover of A Field Guide to Germs
A Field Guide to Germs
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From the ravages of the Ebola virus in Zaire to outbreaks of pneumonic plague in India and drug-resistant TB in New York City, contagious diseases are fighting back against once-unconquerable modern medicine. Public concern about infectious disease is on the rise as newspapers trumpet the arrivals of new germs and the reemergence of old ones.

In A Field Guide to Germs, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Wayne Biddle brings readers face to face with nearly one hundred of the best-known (in terms of prevalence, power, historical importance, or even literary interest) of the myriad pathogens that live in and around the human population. Along with physical descriptions of the organisms and the afflictions they cause, the author provides folklore, philosophy, history, and such illustrations as nineteenth century drawings of plague-induced panic, microscopic photographs of HIV and Ebola, and wartime posters warning servicemen against syphilis and gonorrhea.

From cholera to chlamydia, TB to HIV, bubonic plague to Lyme disease, rabies to Congo-Crimean encephalitis, anthrax to Zika fever, and back to good old rhinitis (the common cold), A Field Guide to Germs is both a handy reference work to better understand today's headlines and a fascinating look at the astonishing impact of micro-organisms on social and political history.
From the ravages of the Ebola virus in Zaire to outbreaks of pneumonic plague in India and drug-resistant TB in New York City, contagious diseases are fighting back against once-unconquerable modern medicine. Public concern about infectious disease is on the rise as newspapers trumpet the arrivals of new germs and the reemergence of old ones.

In A Field Guide to Germs, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Wayne Biddle brings readers face to face with nearly one hundred of the best-known (in terms of prevalence, power, historical importance, or even literary interest) of the myriad pathogens that live in and around the human population. Along with physical descriptions of the organisms and the afflictions they cause, the author provides folklore, philosophy, history, and such illustrations as nineteenth century drawings of plague-induced panic, microscopic photographs of HIV and Ebola, and wartime posters warning servicemen against syphilis and gonorrhea.

From cholera to chlamydia, TB to HIV, bubonic plague to Lyme disease, rabies to Congo-Crimean encephalitis, anthrax to Zika fever, and back to good old rhinitis (the common cold), A Field Guide to Germs is both a handy reference work to better understand today's headlines and a fascinating look at the astonishing impact of micro-organisms on social and political history.
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  • From the book Adenoviruses

    The adenoviruses are a family of forty-nine viruses, identified by sequential letters and numbers, first found in adenoids (lymphoid tissue at the back of the pharynx) in the early 1950s, but definitely around for a long time before that. There are also adenoviruses that infect only animals. The ones that like people cause about 5 percent of all respiratory illnesses, from mild flu-like symptoms to pneumonia, which are rarely fatal though of special concern among military recruits. Some types cause gastrointestinal illnesses; others can cause conjunctivitis among swimmers in lakes or insufficiently chlorinated swimming pools. Most children around the world have been infected with the more common adenoviruses by the time they reach school age.

    Outbreaks of nontrivial respiratory illnesses in new soldiers have been a recognized problem since at least the Civil War. The term "acute respiratory disease" gained acronym status as ard during World War II. Up to twenty cases a week per one hundred recruits could be expected, creating a significant drag on training. Starting in 1971, all American military recruits were vaccinated against the most common adenoviruses, but in 1996 the sole manufacturer of the vaccine stopped production. By 1999, illness during basic training had returned to pre-vaccine era levels, and in 2000 the first two deaths occurred since 1972.

    Just why some of the adenoviruses enjoy these young soldiers so much, compared to civilians, is not clear, but crowding and stress are clearly part of the problem. Populations of recruits have traditionally been subject to diseases usually seen in childhood, such as chicken pox, mumps, and rubella (German measles), perhaps because of the mixture of immune and nonimmune bodies from many different locales. Except during massive mobilizations, troops can be separated into small units when they first arrive, which helps to avert epidemics. Then again, many of these guys and gals don't mind a few days in sick bay.

    The ability of adenoviruses to infect our tonsils and adenoids for long periods of time implies that they have learned how to outwit our defenses. They do not fall into a latent state, like herpes viruses, but reproduce constantly at a snail's pace, changing the cells they enter in such a way that the immune system cannot tell the difference. Some of their tricks give them the power to produce tumors, but this has been observed only in experimental hosts such as hamsters. Why adenoviruses cannot cause cancer in people is unknown.

    Anthrax

    (Bacillus anthracis)

    When the Lord visited "a very severe plague" upon Pharaoh's cattle in Exodus 9, it was surely anthrax. Tough Bacillus anthracis spores can persist for decades in alluvial soil like that of the Nile valley, ravaging herds no matter whose side God is on—in this case, the Israelites were probably spared because they camped on sandy ground above the river's floodplain. Livestock dying in the grip of anthrax's gruesome spasms and convulsions would definitely seem cursed. (The lower Mississippi River valley is another well-documented haven for the disease—the first American cases were reported among animals in Louisiana in the early 1700s.) Anthrax is known as a zoonotic disease (from the Greek prefix zo-, meaning "life" or "animal," and nosos, "disease") because people catch it from animals—primarily cattle but sometimes sheep, horses, pigs, or goats—not from other people. Spores enter the body by means of cuts (cutaneous anthrax, which causes the coal-colored skin lesions for which the microbe is named, from the Greek anthrakis, meaning...
About the Author-
  • Wayne Biddle won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the “Star Wars” antimissile project. He is the author of six books, including A Field Guide to Germs, winner of the American Medical Writers Association’s Walter C. Alvarez Honor Award, and Dark Side of the Moon, which was selected as a New York Times Book Review editor’s choice. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University.
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  • The New York Times

    "Informative and compelling"

  • Booklist "Witty, acerbic, and thorough . . . eminently entertaining."
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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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