Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Scourge Review

With Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox, Jonathan Tucker presents an entertaining overview of the history of the variola virus, one of humanity’s most ruthless killers, and the target of its only successful infectious disease eradication campaign.  The first chapters provide an abbreviated early history, highlighting the notable aspects of the virus’s epidemiology, cultural impact, and lethality. Tucker even provides anecdotes about smallpox as a primitive biological weapon, the fear of which is an undertone throughout the latter chapters.  These first few chapters sufficiently set the stage for the rest of the book, acquainting the reader with smallpox as it used to be: a terrifying, powerful, and mysterious human adversary.  Tucker also gives sufficient nods to the pioneers of the modern vaccine, who paved the way for humanity’s victory over the virus—Lady Wortley Montagu, Dr. James Waterhouse, and Edward Jenner—before he launches into the body of his work.

Scourge focuses primarily on the cooperative international campaign for global eradication of smallpox, begun in 1966. Tucker spends the majority of the book describing the country-by-country difficulties and triumphs of eradication, as well as the heated political debate in the decades following the last human case of smallpox.  Although sometimes at the price of chronological clarity, Tucker does a remarkable job of maintaining the reader’s interest by following the efforts of the major players in the eradication campaign (notables include the effort’s leader D.A. Henderson, the young maverick Larry Brilliant, and former Soviet biological weapons scientist Ken Alibek).  This technique helps Scourge turn pages like a work of fiction, so we feel the weight of Henderson’s determination, the spark of the young Larry Brilliant’s enthusiasm, and the paranoia inspired by Alibek’s first-hand accounts of the Soviet biological weapons program—all without sacrificing historical accuracy or validity. The result is an entertaining, informative overview of the eradication effort and the drama of its aftermath. Of course, this comes at the expense of total depth in any particular subject, but as an introduction to the history and future of smallpox, Scourge is a must-read. 

-Andrew Beck

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