Word Wednesday ‘The Atlas of Disease’

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Atlas of DiseaseThis Week’s Word is “Disease.”

The Atlas of Disease by Sandra Hempel is subtitled “Mapping deadly epidemics and contagion from the plague to the zika virus.”

There have definitely been more pleasant books discussed for Word Wednesday, but few perhaps quite as geekily fascinating. A set of maps, where it’s rarely been truer that “X marks the spot;” this book is perfect for the Pandemic fans in your life.

What is The Atlas of Disease?

It is the contention of the book that through charting the extent and locations of disease, you gain insight into the world’s social history. That the unfolding narrative of the planet’s epidemics goes far beyond that of science and medicine. We can draw parallels with the story of human progress from the beginning of settlements and herding animals right up to the mass movement of people, trade, exploration, and conquest.

The book is broken down into 4 sections:

  • Airborne: Diptheria, Influenza, Leprosy, Measles, and SARS are all included in this section
  • Waterborne: Cholera, Dysentery, and Typhoid are found here.
  • Insects and Animals: Malaria, Plague, Typhus, Yellow Fever, and Zika. A reminder that animals aren’t always man’s best friends!
  • Human to Human: Polio, Ebola, HIV and AIDS, and Syphilis.

For each disease, the book gives a page summary of the illness’ most salient details. This lists the causal agent, transmission and symptoms. These few lines alone are enough for you to want to wash your hands.

After that, comes the number of cases found currently, in a year, and how often these cases are fatal. Prevalence and Prevention tell us where we might catch it and how we avoid doing so. (Spoiler Alert: Vaccination!). The final entry is the global strategy for tackling the disease.

After the disease’s dating profile has been perused (none of which are likely to prompt a “swipe right”), each disease is covered in more detail. This is usually a few of pages of text about a disease’s history and some infographic style maps that give some historical context about its spread. Sometimes these display the worldwide spread of an illness such as the 1918 influenza epidemic, or perhaps the map might be more localized, as in the ravaging of Fiji by measles.

The Atlas of Disease contains a number of pictures that show how various diseases display on the human body or how they were referenced in popular media of the time. These give the information conveyed further social and cultural context. There are some yuck-inducing pictures of spots, pustules, and buboes!

Atlas of Disease
A map that charts the eradication of Small Pox across the globe. (I was only able to find a small image, so it’s a little blurry. The image in the book, is of course, perfectly sharp).

Why Read The Atlas of Disease?

Whilst not the most cheerful of reads, this book enables the reader to look at history from a different angle to normal. Most of us know about plague and pestilence in general terms, but the Atlas of Disease enables us to understand how epidemics caused a change in global history and how the arrival of such an incursion often heralded seismic social changes for the people affected. (“People” in the wider sense. On an individual scale the effect was often catastrophic.)

Not only that, the information contained within the book is a sobering reminder of the power wielded by the viral and bacterial armies described within its pages. There is often much myth, superstition, and misinformation conveyed about the illnesses mentioned in The Atlas of Disease, and it dispassionately cuts through all of that to deliver cold facts about some of the world’s most deadly microbes.

The book highlights the improvements in health, hygiene, and vaccinations that have enabled humanity to combat these tiny aggressors. Reading the book makes one realize the deadly efficiency of viruses and bacterial disease and gives a new found respect and admiration for the scientists and doctors who have fashioned effective treatments to halt these tiny incursions.

Overall, The Atlas of Disease gives great insight into an often overlooked aspect of human history. It presents this fascinating topic with a great blend of maps, diagrams, and text, making for a very informative read.

If you’d like to pick up a copy of The Atlas of Disease, you can so so here, in the US and here, in the UK.

If you enjoyed this review, do check out my other Word Wednesday books. The Bacteria Book is a related book that might be of interest to younger readers.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review. 

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