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Non-review of book ‘Spillover’ and the threat of deadly red herrings

The risk of red herrings
Flickr, JudyGr

I have always loved the work of David Quammen, someone I would describe as a science adventure writer. Quammen was in Seattle recently to promote his new book about the animal-human disease connection, Spillover. It’s getting good reviews, such as in Time magazine and the New York Times.

This is a non-review of Quammen’s book because I haven’t read it and missed the lecture.

My purpose here is only to use Quammen’s book tour to point out the risk of deadly red herrings. No, I am not suggesting that new, mutant forms of the small (delicious) fish are swimming around threatening to wipe out life on the planet, though that does sound like a good plot. I am suggesting the popular focus on infectious disease sometimes can distract us from bigger killers.

We all love a good, scary infectious disease story: The movie Contagion or Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone (which Quammen criticizes for its exaggerated and hyperbolic description of Ebola infection). My friend and colleague Laurie Garrett, who wrote The Coming Plague, built her stellar journalistic career on scaring the bejeezus out of everyone along this narrative line. And it’s a real thing. The risk from zoonotic diseases — diseases like AIDS, Ebola, Sars and, actually, seasonal influenza — is significant.

But what really kills most people? Is it a mutant virus, or is it something else much more mundane and boring?

It’s actually, mostly, just plain old poverty.

More than 800 million people on the planet go hungry every day, millions of them actually dying from hunger or malnutrition every year. UNICEF says something like 20,000 children die every day due to the various harmful impacts of poverty. Nearly two million kids die just from diarrhea every year due to dirty water and lack of access to simple, cheap and basic health interventions like oral rehydration salts. The reality on Planet Earth today is that poverty and its attendant ills are clearly the leading causes of death.

So rather than get all excited again about the future threat of some new bug mutating out of a monkey, chicken or pig and then spreading around the world dropping people as they walk down the streets and wreaking havoc in shopping malls, let’s see if we can come up with a new narrative — one that gets us all excited about the current mostly deadly threat on the planet. Poverty.

Meanwhile, I still plan to get and read Quammen’s new book.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.