Header picture by Ken Teegardin
Archives (I plan to have some soon)
Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.
Trying to make sense of nonsense
With only a couple of days left until presents are expected to magically appear under trees, here are a few (affordable) suggestions for gifts for that special epidemiologist in your life.
Naturally, you could get him/her a John Snow mug (though beware true coffee/tea addicts: the mug is a bit on the small side), Florence Nightingale, or a brain-eating amoeba, or perhaps a cuddly, but evil Poisson distribution (oh, it promises to be discreet, but as soon as you say something negative it bails on you). There’s even some stuff if you want to be more traditional and go with jewellery: a π necklace for instance, or a necklace spelling out ‘I am star stuff’ in amino acids (the shop is closed at the moment unfortunately). And best of all, there’s the Sciencegrrl calendar – and tote bag, badges and memory sticks – which is pretty awesome and features epidemiology girl Soozaphone as April.
But hey, if you’re anything like me, you’re planning to spend the entire Christmas break reading on your parents’ couch, so here are my favourite three 2012 books vaguely related to epidemiology:
3. Ben Goldacre: Bad Pharma
A good book on an important topic, that happens to partially coincide with my PhD, so I’m probably a bit biased. It’s not a book to read in one go, if only because your blood will boil, and as the trials on blood pressure drugs are a bit dodgy, that might not be a good thing.
The title of the book might be a tad bit misleading though as Big Pharma isn’t inherently bad, we (regulators, academics, governments, patient groups, the public) just let them get away with it. Google, Amazon and Starbucks are ‘morally wrong’ in trying to pay the least possible amount of tax, but we don’t put the sole blame on them. The same principle goes for Big Pharma: we let them do it. Let’s change that.
So why only third place? Well, there happened to be two even more awesome books vaguely related to epidemiology published this year (that, and I can’t figure out the braille joke on the cover, which has been bugging me for weeks).
2. Jon Ronson: The Psychopath Test
A mystery package from Sweden arrives in an academic’s pigeonhole in London. There is no return address. Inside the package is a book of which every other page is blank, the pages with words on them have words cut out, and it is written by a ‘Joe K’. Intrigue follows: many academics all over the world, in distant corners such as Tibet and Iran, have received the exact same package. The London academic decides to enlist Jon Ronson to find out what’s going on and a journey into the madness industry follows.
The book might be a particularly good read with DSM-5 coming up in 2013. Psychology Today has a nice overview of everything that might be wrong with this new edition of the ‘bible of mental health disorders’ (calling it that for one). Perhaps everything will be all right and the new DSM will just create more psychiatric atheism among those wielding the power to diagnose, but with normal behaviour such as grieving longer than two weeks being classed as a mental disorder,
1. David Quammen: Spillover
“If you look at the world from the point of view of a hungry virus, or even a bacterium – we offer a magnificent feeding ground with all our billions of human bodies, where, in the very recent past, there were only half as many people. In some 25 or 27 years, we have doubled in number. A marvellous target for any organism that can adapt itself to invading us.” William H. McNeill – historian
I’ve grown up in a part of the world that was hit by epidemics almost every other year, or so it seemed at the time. It was horrible. Going to school every morning and not knowing who would be victimised next. Luckily, they weren’t epidemics affecting humans, but livestock. We had classical swine fever in 1997/98, foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, and blue tongue in 2006/07. During those epidemics, the farms of my school friends would be hit one by one. They had to stand by as professionals came in to kill off thousands of animals which they loved and were their families’ only source of income. Later that same day it would all be repeated on the TV during the eight o’clock news, and the next day the trucks would pull up at their neighbours’. It was hard. And it became even harder after 2007, when it turned out that one of those epidemics, Q-fever, was affecting humans.
When we think about where the Next Big One might come from, a rural village in the Netherlands doesn’t tend to be high on the list. Nevertheless, it features in ‘Spillover’ as one of the places where a spillover, the transmission of an infectious disease from animal to human, happened recently. The Dutch story might not be as thrilling as capturing bats potentially infected with a deadly virus (Marburg), tailing gorillas who could be the host of the elusive Ebola virus or tracking down stories on the origins of SARS, HIV and Nipah. The latter, though relatively unknown, caused an outbreak in Malaysia when it spread from fruit bats, via pigs to humans. A million pigs had to be killed. “There’s no easy way to kill a million pigs,” notes Dr Hume Field, one of the experts followed by David Quammen in the book. Later he corrects himself: It was in fact 1.1 million pigs. The difference might seem like just a rounding error, he tells Quammen, but if you ever had to kill an “extra” hundred thousand pigs and dispose of their bodies in bulldozed pits, you’d remember the difference as significant.
Spillover is, without doubt, the most intriguing book I’ve read all year.
*But perfectly timed for my birthday in January 😉