Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Book Review of Smallpox: The Fight to Eradicate a Global Scourge

By David Koplow

Smallpox: the Fight to Eradicate a Global Scourge is a thorough, multi-disciplinary overview of the debate whether or not to destroy the remaining known stocks of smallpox virus in Vector Laboratory in Russia and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. The beginning chapters provide readers with introductory knowledge of smallpox – its biology, its history, its use as a biological weapon, and its place as an issue in international environmental and health policy. Although each chapter in itself does not cover every issue of the subject (theoretically, each chapter could have been expanded upon to become its own book), Koplow presents an incredibly multi-disciplinary understanding of smallpox as a biological, historical, and political agent. For example, a chapter about environmental law and policy may seem unrelated to smallpox at first, but Koplow discusses many policy aspects that ultimately both are affected by smallpox and affect the development, use, and distribution of smallpox. Ultimately, each chapter serves as a building block to Koplow’s final two chapters, one of which presents the argument for eradication and the other against the eradication. Koplow is professional and neutral in his presentation of the background knowledge; readers will not know whether he is for or against the extinction of smallpox until the final two chapters.

It is fairly apparent that the book is written for the general public – people who are unfamiliar with smallpox, biological weapons, and public health. For people who know little about these subjects, Koplow writes an incredible introduction to the numerous aspects of smallpox including its basic history and biology and the politics that surround the disease. This book is not tailored for people who are searching for in-depth discussion of the history or biology of smallpox. For people who are more educated about the issues, some sections may be cursory and too general. Still, I appreciated Koplow’s approach to presenting an entire package of information about smallpox.

Perhaps what I enjoyed most about this book is how applicable its content is to today’s world. Through his organization and style of writing, Koplow encourages his readers to think about smallpox as more than just an eradicated virus confined to the pages of a history or biology textbook. He succeeds in equipping the readers with the information and questions necessary to engage in the debate about extinction of smallpox. Furthermore, the framework of analysis and thought he uses to address smallpox could be used for any other infectious disease (such as HIV to which he makes numerous reference). Thus, Koplow doesn’t tell his readers what to think about smallpox but how to think about public health issues in general. Koplow asks the question “should the remaining stocks of smallpox be destroyed?” and he shows that the answer to that question is anything but simple.

-Elizabeth

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