October 2004

Gena Anderson


Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease by Wendy Orent

This informational and interesting look at both the history and the science of the plague starts and ends with a warning to its readers -- don’t think the world has seen an end to widespread outbreaks of this disease. What may seem like a dire and fanatical outlook however has actual merit. Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease starts and finishes with the proof to back up these claims, with the middle of the book devoted to historical accounts of the major outbreaks of the plague and their methods of spread and contagion. Both the scientific and historical documentation of the disease is detailed -- I definitely had difficulty with the biological descriptions of the virus itself -- but even if you don’t remember much of high school biology class, this book is fascinating in all its thoroughness.

Orent begins the book by describing her trip to Russia, in which she speaks to Igor V. Domaradskij, a scientist who is an expert on Yersinia Pestis, the germ that causes plague. Domaradskij also worked at an infamous Soviet biological warfare plant, Obolensk. Here he and other scientists developed antibiotic resistant bio weapons, making plague into an even more deadly weapon than it was in the past. Orent then goes on to try and explain the “Mystery of Plague,” the different ways in which it is spread, the different types it takes, and how it is a zoonosis -- an animal disease that only occasionally can affect people. In fact, the main carriers of plague, even back to biblical times, have been marmots, with squirrels, rats, and prairie dogs being more recent carriers. It is only through contact with the dead, diseased animals that gives a person the disease today, and even then it can usually be contained pretty easily. However, as most people know, in the past it was not contained so well and is one of the deadliest diseases ever to hit civilization.

The next few sections of the book outline what happens when the plague does spread. Orent takes us through the history of the plague, using firsthand written accounts from each pandemic, or wave, of plague, as well as her own opinions and scientific speculation on how and why the plague spread as it did. Many people have heard about the Black Death (1347), the most infamous time of plague contagion, but Orent describes the other major outbreaks, the Justinian Plague in 542 and the Renaissance Plague (right after the Black Death), as well as the Third Pandemic, of which the Manchurian epidemic is scarily as recent as 1921. It’s strangely ironic to realize that the very expansion of civilization, through war and commerce, is what opened up routes for the plague to spread so widely and decimate so many villages, drastically cutting down the world’s population.

As for the future of the plague, it seems rather frightening as well. Here in the United States, we seem to be mostly worried about things like Anthrax, which does not spread from person to person, but from direct contact with spores. The strains of plague that exist now can initially be gotten from spores, and then would spread like wildfire, as it is contagious. These new strains, when treated with antibiotics, would only become more deadly. Orent suggests that the only way to get through such an attack would be not to panic, for people to “restrict their own behavior," and not flee the area, thus spreading the disease even farther. I suggest that if you don’t want to panic, don’t read this book. I’ll just be over here, in my new hermetically sealed bomb shelter.

Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease by Wendy Orent
Free Press
ISBN: 0743236858
276 Pages