Review: The Disease and the Gory Details | Book reviews and short stories


“Patient Zero: A Curious History of the World’s Worst Diseases” by Lydia Kang MD and Nate Pedersen, Workman Publishing, 389 pages, $24.95.

The current pandemic has made our great nation the homeland of hypochondriacs. Every sniffle or cough now forces us to reach for the nearest mask and hand sanitizer while viewing any stranger who approaches as a potential “carrier”. This makes this book the perfect read for the season.

“Patient Zero” by Lydia Kang, MD, an internist in Omaha, and Nate Pedersen, a journalist in Oregon, contains enough information about humanity’s killer diseases to ensure sleepless nights until this pandemic wears off. calmed down.

The authors’ previous book, “Quackery,” was favorably reviewed in this space on June 7, 2018, and was a light-hearted review of failings in the medical profession. The subject of their new book is much darker, although occasionally flashes of dry wit shine through the darkness.

“Patient Zero” is a compendium of the transmissible afflictions from Anthrax to Zika, which have periodically thinned the ranks of humans through the ages.

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Many of the illnesses described make the current pandemic pale in comparison. Bacterial, viral and fungal etiologies are covered as well as more obscure causes such as ‘mad cow’ prions and diphtheria and tetanus toxins.

The gruesome details of each disease are described in terms a lay audience can understand and the horrific symptoms of dreaded diseases like leprosy, syphilis, the Black Death and the 1918 H1N1 flu pandemic are presented in detail.

Although the toll of the COVID pandemic has been devastating, it does not compare to the viral epidemics of measles and smallpox that killed 95% of the advanced indigenous civilizations of North and South America (24 to 95 million) after the arrival of European explorers.

The critical roles of epidemiology in the investigation and discovery of the bacterial cause of Legionnaires’ disease in 1976 and an outbreak of viral hepatitis C in Fremont, Nebraska, in 2000-2001 from unsanitary conditions in a clinic of local oncology are documented.

Colorful images of posters and paintings, colorful microscopic slides of bacteria and viruses, and vintage photos of historic medical pioneers make the accompanying text more palatable. By the end of the book, the reader will be familiar with the development and types of vaccines, improvements in disease prevention and treatment, and the role of autopsy in medical diagnosis.

The reviewer noted some evidence of TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome) in the authors when they classify hydroxychloroquine as a “quack” remedy despite its use to improve COVID symptoms in the rest of the world.

Despite this medical caveat, the book will be useful to anyone wishing to understand and interpret the current global medical crisis and place it in proper historical perspective.

J. Kemper Campbell, MD, is a retired Lincoln ophthalmologist who has helped treat hundreds of Nebraska patients who have benefited from the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat debilitating illnesses.

Alycia R. Lindley