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Poor focus spoils tremendous research
on 26 August 2003
The audience and purpose of this book is not clear. In part it acts as a detailed history of the fight against new types of harmful microbes. But it jumps from one piece of history to another without clear explanation and it contains so much political opinion that I wondered about its historical accuracy.
Another aspect of the book is its description of the individual scientists as they engage in exciting and dangerous hunts to identify and understand new diseases. But such descriptions become more detailed and long-winded as the book progresses and with so many scientists named it is difficult to keep track.
A third element is an attempt to demonstrate the relationship between human society and microbes and how all parts of the world, rich and poor, are connected. This is the most original part of the book. Garrett’s extraordinarily detailed, and at times fascinating, descriptions give considerable weight to her argument that infectious diseases should be addressed primarily from an ecological rather than a clinical point of view.
Her suggestion, however, that the health risks in Africa, with its poverty, civil wars and political corruption, are a great threat to the Western World is not really convincing. Furthermore, while stressing the reduced effectiveness of antibiotics through over-use, there is no mention of probiotics (beneficial microbes used to counteract harmful ones) and her tone is therefore unnecessarily pessimistic.
Garrett’s political prejudices also get in the way. While she is fearless in criticising politicians, bureaucrats and religious leaders, she treats male homosexuals with kid gloves. She makes it clear that the excesses of gay men (ie: many having more than a hundred sexual partners a year) is a major factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS. Such behaviour is, however, described as ‘fast-track sex’, as if it were almost admirable. And while criticising the US Government for not spending enough money on public education about sexually-transmitted diseases, she makes clear that the message should be about ‘safe sex’ using condoms, without any mention of monogamy or abstinence.
For somebody so obviously talented, it is a pity that Laurie Garrett did not edit the book to one-third its size to give a more focussed and enjoyable read. There is enough content to have produced three fantastically readable books. Instead we have a text that is so packed with information and opinion that it is hard to see the wood for the trees.