Deadly diseases

Deadly diseases

During this time of coughs, sneezes, sniffles, and snot, I thought I’d take this opportunity to remind you that this marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the Spanish influenza pandemic.  Coming at the end of World War I, it took more lives than that catastrophe.  An estimated twenty to fifty million people lost their lives while around five hundred million caught the disease.

Few places were spared—even Alaska and most Pacific islands suffered.   Unlike many flu outbreaks, the greatest numbers of deaths were among hale and hearty adults, particularly those in their twenties and thirties.  Scientists now think that this strain was able to hijack more robust immune systems, while the very young and the very old, who might have otherwise been at risk, often escaped its grip.  The worst of the disease had passed by mid-1919, but deadly localized outbreaks continued well into 1920.  The H1N1 virus, as it became known, continued to crop up every winter and spring for decades but lacked its fatal intensity.

Improvements have been made in disease prevention and public health, so we ought to be grateful that we live in these times.  But this is not to say that we have put the past behind us.  Lurking is the possibility of another pandemic—one need only think of recent outbreaks of Ebola to get an idea of what could happen.


But let’s be honest

We’re fascinated by deadly diseases, whether they are of the zombie-creating kind or a real-life scenario like the Spanish flu pandemic.  And it’s interesting to think about the influence that these microscopic Grim Reapers have had on history.

Just remember to cover your mouth. Okay?  If you are sick (or well), here are some books that might be the cure to your curiosity.

Books about deadly diseases

Pandemic 1918:  A new history of the Spanish flu outbreak—one that was more deadly than the infamous Black Death.

The Hot Zone:  The true story of an outbreak of a relative of the Ebola virus in a research facility located not too far from Washington, DC.  While the virus turned out to be deadly only to monkeys, we narrowly missed a doomsday situation.  Sure, the tone is a little alarmist, but–hold on to your hazmat suit!–it’s great reading.

In the Wake of the Plague: A highly influential history of the bubonic plague, which ravaged Europe in the 14th century.  You know this modern world that we live in with all of its technology and institutions?  By the end of this book, you may be thanking the pestilence for all of this progress. Or not.

The Genius Plague: There are plenty of sci-fi novels out there about pandemics, so I’m going to choose one I found particularly interesting.  An adventurer to the Amazon Rainforest accidently brings back a fungus that attaches itself to the human brain, but makes its host smarter.  Soon others are infected with it, linked by the fungus into an emerging hive mind that seeks to bend humanity to the fungus’ need to survive. It’s part ecological parable, part body horror, part social commentary on our interconnected world. Also, if you don’t like to eat mushrooms, it’ll give you one more reason to hate them.


Deadly diseases continue to fascinate us. As long as it’s happening some time else or some place else.

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Written by Ross Hughes, librarian at the Amelia Branch Library.



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