Richard Preston and Ebola Fears

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Back when I was teaching Medical Sociology, I had a strong interest in epidemics and the social behaviors that influenced how disease spread. I did not formally study epidemiology in graduate school though. I fed that interest through “light” reading, some of it maybe even quite sensationalist in nature. One book I clearly remember reading is The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. Another one is Dr. William Close’s Ebola. I was fascinated by these books, both published in the mid-1990s, right after the very first Ebola scare. From what I have read in the press recently, both books would be relevant and interesting reads today.

I was not very surprised to find an article by Richard Preston in this week’s issue The New Yorker Magazine. It is called “The Ebola Wars: How Genomics Research Can Help Contain the Outbreak”. He reports on the current outbreak and how new techniques can provide insights into how the virus works and how it mutates, so we can hopefully end up with effective cures.

To some extent, the virulence of Ebola does look like science fiction and does strike fear into our hearts. Many works of fiction are more or less artfully used this fear to provide us with gripping stories of world-changing epidemics. The latest I have read is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. One of my favorites is Blindness by José Saramago and his epidemic of white blindness that disappear as mysteriously as it started, but not without turning the world of his characters upside down. And of what of the epidemic of barenness in P.D. James’ The Children of Men?

What is your favorite fictional epidemic? How did it lead it to reflect on the fragility of life as we know it?

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