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A Christmas Prescription: 12 Books That Deliver Insights on Health

From pandemics to opioids to wildfires, authors offer important lessons.

Crawford Kilian 5 Dec

Tyee contributing editor Crawford Kilian blogs about the politics of public health at H5N1.

Health care is a big component of the Canadian economy (about $232 billion this year), not to mention a major issue in Canadian politics. We tend to worry about our health in personal terms, but it’s public health that really determines how long (and how peacefully) we live.

You know public health is working, it’s said, when nothing happens. But getting to that uneventful state is usually a very turbulent process that can inspire some brilliant (and eye-opening) stories.

So here are some health-related books that I’ve reviewed in the last couple of years, with links to those reviews. You may find they make good Christmas presents, whether for health care workers, health care recipients, or anyone interested in political solutions to literal life-or-death problems.

Deadly River: Cholera and Cover-Up in Post-Earthquake Haiti, by Dr. Ralph R. Frerichs.

Likely the best book I’ve yet read on the politics of global health. Frerichs follows Dr. Renaud Piarroux’s search for the cause of the 2010 cholera outbreak, which has so far sickened over 800,000 Haitians and killed almost 10,000 of them. The book turns into a suspenseful medical thriller and exposes villains in places no villain should be.

Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, From Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, by Sonia Shah.

Brilliantly organized and beautifully written, this book uses cholera as a gateway to a host of modern public health problems. The maddening thing about those problems, Shah argues, is that infectious diseases rely on us to spread them around… and we stupidly oblige them, whether by not washing our hands or refusing to get our kids vaccinated.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg.

The current opioid disaster afflicting North America goes back to the 1700s or earlier, when British governments used their colonies as dumps for unwanted people. Their descendants were cannon fodder in every U.S. war from the Revolution to Iraq. With the outsourcing of American industry, they’ve been abandoned to OxyContin, heroin and fentanyl.

Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, by Norman Ohler.

A fascinating account of how German pharmaceuticals evolved from aspirin to heroin to methamphetamines — and how drugs were adopted by the Nazis as a productivity tool for industrial workers and a secret weapon for the military. The Wehrmacht on speed crashed through French defences in days. Hitler himself was drugged to the gills for much of the war, which explains a great deal.

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren.

Jahren describes the difficulties of being both a scientist and female — while also being bipolar. She writes beautifully not only about herself but about the trees she loves and the ecosystems they support. Countless women in the health sciences (and men as well) will understand her situation and envy her writing style.

The Politics of Fear: Médecins Sans Frontières and the West African Ebola Epidemic, edited by Michiel Hofman and Sokhieng Au.

Médecins Sans Frontières totally lacks a reassuring bedside manner and it’s as tough on itself as it is on those who get in its way. MSF was on the ground when Ebola broke out and learned the hard way how to deal with the cultural aspects of a truly disastrous epidemic.

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs, by Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker.

“Bad News Mike” Osterholm has been alarming both the public and his colleagues for decades, and with good reason: he knows what he’s talking about. Most of us, however, react and over-react to relatively trivial threats while ignoring serious public health problems. He offers a nine-point plan to deal with the real problems, and he makes perfect sense.

Lost City of the Monkey God, by Douglas Preston.

You wouldn’t think an account of a high-tech search for a lost city in Honduras would have much to do with modern health issues. But the city, smothered in dense tropical vegetation, had more dangerous residents than fer-de-lance vipers: sand flies carrying mucocutaneous leishmaniasis, which can eat your face from inside. Preston speculates that the city was destroyed by European pandemics spreading ahead of the Spanish conquistadors, but sand flies have taken revenge ever since.

Inside the Inferno: A Firefighter’s Story of the Brotherhood that Saved Fort McMurray, by Damian Asher with Omar Mouallem.

Asher was a fire chief in northern Alberta’s oilsands boom town when a wildfire called “the Beast” broke out and forced the evacuation of 90,000 people. He’s now dealing with occupational health issues resulting from fighting that fire. Anyone living on the “wildland urban interface” should read this book because too many of us (including me) live close to forests that are likely to explode thanks to climate change and our own stupid forestry policies.

Climate Change and the Health of Nations: Famines, Fevers, and the Fate of Populations, by Anthony McMichael with Alistair Woodward and Cameron Muir.

We’re lucky to have this book. McMichael, an Australian epidemiologist, died unexpectedly after completing a draft, and two colleagues revised and expanded it. With an epic sweep, the book covers thousands of years in which humanity became both masters of the planet and slaves to its climate. McMichael warned that endless economic growth would simply make us a bigger, fatter target for the next pandemic or climate-driven famine. He was probably right.

Inferno: A Doctor’s Ebola Story, by Steven Hatch, MD.

Hatch volunteered to help deal with the West African Ebola outbreak in the summer of 2014 and came back vividly aware that culture can be a health hazard — not just in West Africa, but also here at home. He describes American hysteria over an imported case in Texas, and the political games played by U.S. politicians about returning health care workers. Anthropology is an underdeveloped part of modern medicine.

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney.

This is the first detailed account of the great pandemic’s worldwide reach; most earlier accounts focused on Europe or North America and ignored its impact elsewhere. While it killed far more people than the First World War, the Spanish flu was rarely mentioned after it ended. Spinney argues that we remember wars and gradually forget them, while we forget pandemics and gradually remember them. A century later, with the next flu pandemic likely to arrive soon, we are remembering the Spanish flu just in time.

These books don’t always make cheery holiday reading, but year’s end is a good time to look back and look ahead. Public health is important, and it starts with an informed public.

Story updated on Dec. 6, 2017 at 9:15 a.m. to correct the amount spent on healthcare, with thanks to André Picard.  [Tyee]

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