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Originally published Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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'Spillover': Deadly diseases that jump from animals to humans

Book review: In "Spillover," acclaimed science writer David Quammen tells the frightening story of diseases that jump from animals to humans. Quammen will discuss his book Oct. 9 at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

David Quammen

The author of "Spillover" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 9 at Town Hall Seattle, Eighth Avenue and Seneca Street, Seattle. Tickets are $5 at, at 888-377-4510 and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.
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'Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic'

by David Quammen

W.W. Norton, 480 pp., $28.95

Every year there seems to be a novel deadly disease in the news: Hantavirus, Ebola, West Nile virus, SARS, H5N1. Although they slip out of the headlines, these very scary problems still persist and kill. As of mid-September, 118 people had died from West Nile virus, and three people had died of Hantavirus in the United States in 2012. In the Congo, the 2012 toll from Ebola has reached 31 deaths, with another 38 suspected or confirmed to have the disease. With no cure and a mortality rate of 40 to 90 percent, more will surely die.

Infectious-disease biologists refer to these various bugs as zoonoses, or diseases or infection transmissible from an animal to humans. They include the well-known, such as bubonic plague, Lyme disease, rabies, AIDS, and the legendary Spanish influenza of 1918-19, and the little-known, including Rift Valley fever, Marburg virus disease, and Nipah encephalitis. All are deadly. Most have no cure. And many are little understood, in part, because they are so recently discovered.

This is the world we enter in David Quammen's new book, "Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic." As he did in his John Burroughs Medal award-winning "The Song of the Dodo," Quammen has written a reportorial tour de force that spans the globe and provides a hands-on view of what has the potential to be one of the most frightening problems facing science and scientists.

As page turning as Richard Preston's "The Hot Zone," but less lurid (once again truth is stranger than fiction), "Spillover" explores the origins, scientific research and human stories of many of these zoonotic diseases, including Ebola, Marburg, and Nipah. Perhaps most interesting is his section on AIDS, tracing its origin to a single chimpanzee in Cameroon in 1908.

Three ideas stand out in Quammen's book.

The first is the amazing detective work done by scientists who often risk their own lives to ferret out the origins of these diseases. It is a mix of on-the-ground searching for clues and reliance on high technology that certainly should inspire any young person seeking a career.

Second is the stark contrast between the developed and the developing world. Both face zoonotic diseases, but with the hordes of money available in the developed world, those who get such diseases often face significantly greater odds of survival.

And finally, zoonotic diseases have not evolved in isolation. "We should recognize that they reflect things that we're doing, not just things that are happening to us," Quammen writes. There are more of us, living more densely, disrupting more wild ecosystems, eating more wild animals, traveling farther and faster, overusing antibiotics and altering global climate. "That's the salubrious thing about zoonotic diseases: They remind us, as St. Francis did, that we humans are inseparable from the natural world. In fact, there is no "natural world"... There is only the world."

We and the diseases and the animals are all in it together. Fortunately, as Quammen points out, we are smart. There are many dedicated people seeking to better understand these diseases, their origin and their cures. Yes, this is a very scary book, but as told by one of the best science writers going, it also does offer hope.

Seattle author David B. Williams' latest book is "Cairns: Messengers in Stone" (Mountaineers Books).

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