Tony's Reviews > Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

Spillover by David Quammen
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's review
Oct 01, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: science-nature, top-10-2012

You have to understand. I have my phobias. So it makes for awkward social encounters. Like: “Mommy,” said the little girl in the elevator, “Why is that man holding his breath the whole way down from the 16th floor?” I have been known to say things like, “Will you please stop sneezing in the direction of my beer?” I went to a doctor’s office a few years ago. Nothing ultimately serious, but possibly so, so that I went for the quickly scheduled appointment even though I was already nursing a bad cold. He wouldn’t have to touch my face, I safely predicted. It was a doctor I had never seen before, and after the usual 15-minute wait in solitary, he came in to the examination room with a game show-host smile and extended his hand, like, you know, we were soon to become new best friends. So I put up my hands defensively and said, “Sorry, but I have a cold and it’s better not to shake hands.” I figured, as a doctor, he would appreciate my candor and consideration for him and the many patients to follow. Well, he kept his hand out for a minute, as if I had slapped him, clearly thinking about what I had said. Then, with a busy officiousness, he strode to the sink and vigorously washed his hands with some anti-bacterial goo. This gave me pause. Why was he washing his hands after I declined shaking his hand and not before he offered it?

I share this because the last thing I really need is to read a book about Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Like going to see an obvious Horror movie, I know I will be scared. Yet, we plunk down our money, watch the predictable script and wait for the creepy Pavlovian organ music to raise the hair on the back of our necks. So, scare me shitless, David Quammen. I gots to know.

It is not until page 511 of this 520-page book that Quammen raises the question that he is often asked by those learning he is writing such a book: “Are we all gonna die?” And the answer is: Yes, we’re all gonna die. Yes. We are all gonna pay taxes and we are all gonna die. Most of us, though, will probably die of something more mundane than a new virus lately emerged from a duck or a chimpanzee or a bat.

Most, but not all of us.

This is a book about zoonosis, animal infections transmissible to humans. AIDS is one. Rabies. Ebola. Marburg. Influenza. Beware the animal reservoir. That would be the animal that ‘hosts’ the virus, safely unto itself, but potentially lethal when it jumps, when there’s a Spillover to humans. So don’t nosh on raw monkey or ape bushmeat, no matter how prized that delicacy is in the culture you’re visiting. Don’t place your pigsty under the mango tree. And don’t under any circumstances drink the palm sap. If you happen to crawl into an African cave, you know, for the experience of being underground with stale air, no natural light, thousands of bats peeing on you from above and a few cobras slinking through your feet, all without a biohazard suit, do not under any circumstances reach down for balance and touch the bat guano with your bare hand. Trust me, bad shit happens.

I learned more reading this book than I did in two semesters of indifferently-attended college biology classes. Not that I can articulate the difference between microbiology and molecular biology, or other things unnecessary to get through the day. But how about this? Of all the mammals in the world – every dog, every deer, every kittycat – every freaking mammal, one in four is a bat. That’s: 1) a lot of bats ; and 2) a bad thing. Also, if you go to the Dominican Republic or some other exotic island and one of the locals comes along the beach to put a macaque on your head for a cute picture to send home to the family, resist the tourist urge. You may be bringing home something more than a Kodak moment.

Quammen has found the right level of transmission to get these notions of science and math across to an idiot like me. And, even if I failed him, I was nevertheless entertained.

Here is the way to start a chapter:

In late February, 2003, SARS got on a plane in Hong Kong and went to Toronto. But soon we are learning more about bats, three species in particular carrying SARS-like virus: the big-eared horseshoe bat, the least horseshoe bat, and Pearson’s Horseshoe bat. Waxing smart-alecky, Quammen quips, “If you ever notice these animals on the menu of a restaurant in Southern China, you might want to choose the noodles instead.

But I like smart-alecky.

So I was scared, entertained and enlightened. Sometimes a single sentence would send me happily to both a dictionary and Google, such as this description of his first meeting with a researcher in Guangzhou: I suppose the durian should have been my first signal that he was a temerarious eater.

One last, lingering piece of advice I will share:

If your husband catches an ebolavirus, give him food and water and love and prayers but keep your distance, wait patiently, hope for the best—and, if he dies, don’t clean out his bowels by hand. Better to step back, blow a kiss, and burn the hut.

Wise words. Which I pass along, like a reservoir host, as a public service.
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Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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Emily Ooh, I'm really looking forward to reading this.

Tony Like every word Quammen has ever written, Emily, it's really, really good.

Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly Reminds me of another scary book I've read, about the Spanish Flu which killed millions worldwide. It says the young and the strong died more easily than the weak ones (i.e., old people) because the virus works this way: when it infects a person, his antibodies goes after it like crazy but the strong ones have strong antibodies which overreact and kill even good cells. The analogy given was a fly enters a house and a nuclear bomb is dropped on it to kill the fly.

You should smell and try durian sometime.

Tony You should smell and try durian sometime.

Is that a recommendation? I'm actually very experimental when it comes to eating and preparing food (although I have now sworn off bushmeat). Have you actually eaten durian? If so, please provide details!

Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly Hard outer shell, spiked like some viruses (when you look at them thru a microscope), about the size of an ordinary ball. Endemic in several southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. The more popular description is this: it tastes like heaven, but smells like hell.

Tony I don't think we have that at the local Giant Eagle. You're the only person I 'know' who has ever had one. So I hold you responsible.

message 7: by Emily (new)

Emily Chen Jack and I have both eaten Durian! While we were living in Bali. Great review, I'm going to try downloading this book now :).

Tony Jack and I have both eaten Durian! While we were living in Bali.

So nice to hear from you, Emily! Please share details about your durian-eating experience. And, more importantly, should I make it for Thanksgiving?

message 9: by Jeffrey (new) - added it

Jeffrey Keeten Okay you got me on board the plague plane. I'm going to get scared too.

Elizabeth Theiss Just started Spillover and love your review. Like you, I love the disease book genre. Demon in the Freezer, Ghost Map, Hot Zone, Deadly Feast, Flu, and so on. Some of them are better than police procedurals, as teams of epidemiologists track down deadly killers. Others read more like horror film scripts where we know exactly what is going to happen to the victim but we want to see how it ends anyway. Thanks for a great review.

message 11: by Tony (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tony Thank you, Elizabeth. I look forward to your review.

message 12: by Shovelmonkey1 (new)

Shovelmonkey1 Funny review, mine host. As someone who spends a lot of time with my face in the dirt, interfering with the dead (in a strictly scientific way), i try not to give too much thought to my day to day bacteria contact .... and the plague.

message 13: by Tony (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tony You know not to ignore the Armenian warning signs and unwrap the Mummy, right?

Ninja you are a very funny writer Tony. :-D Thanks for the delightful review.

message 15: by Brooke (new) - added it

Brooke B Tony, relax. As a nurse, I can tell you that you come in contact DAILY with MILLIONS of viruses and bacteria. They are unknown, unidentified, and rampant. The good news is our bodies are wondrous machines. Over millions of years, the human body has made antibodies to these bugs. Travel the world, be adventurous and live life because life is too short!!!!

message 16: by Cassy (new) - added it

Cassy Excellent review.

message 17: by Tony (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tony Cassy wrote: "Excellent review."

Thanks, Cassy. And great picture.

Maggie On page 47 and already wanting to bathe in your comments

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