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Book Review

Review: Disease and the gory details

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“Patient Zero: A Curious History of the World’s Worst Diseases” by Lydia Kang M.D. and Nate Pedersen, Workman Publishing, 389 pages, $24.95.

The present pandemic has caused our great nation to become the Home of the Hypochondriac. Each sniffle or cough now causes us to reach for the nearest mask and hand sanitizer while regarding any approaching stranger as a potential “carrier.” That makes this book the perfect reading matter for the season.

“Patient Zero” by Lydia Kang, M.D., an internist in Omaha, and Nate Pedersen, a journalist in Oregon, contains enough information about the deadly diseases of mankind to ensure sleepless nights until this pandemic subsides.

The authors’ previous book, “Quackery,” was reviewed favorably in this space June 7, 2018, and was a light-hearted review of the medical profession’s foibles. The subject of their new book is much darker, although flashes of dry wit occasionally shine through the gloom.

“Patient Zero” is a compendium of the communicable afflictions from Anthrax to Zika, which have periodically thinned the ranks of humans through the ages.

Many of the diseases described make the present pandemic pale by comparison. Bacterial, viral and fungal etiologies are covered as well as more obscure causes such as the prions of “mad cow” disease and the toxins of diphtheria and tetanus.

The gruesome details of each disease are described in terms a lay audience can understand and the horrendous symptoms of dreaded conditions like leprosy, syphilis, the black plague and the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic are presented in gory detail.

Although the toll of the COVID pandemic has been devastating, it does not compare with the viral epidemics of measles and smallpox which killed 95% of the advanced native civilizations of North and South America (24 to 95 million) after the arrival of European explorers.

The critical roles of epidemiology in the investigation and discovery of the bacterial cause of Legionnaires’ disease in 1976 and a viral hepatitis C outbreak in Fremont, Nebraska, in 2000-2001 from unsanitary conditions in a local oncology clinic are documented.

Colorful images of posters and paintings, stained microscopic slides of bacteria and viruses and vintage photos of historic medical pioneers make the accompanying text more palatable. By the book’s end the reader will be familiar with the development and types of vaccines, improvements in prevention and treatment of disease, and the role of autopsy in medical diagnosis.

The reviewer did note some evidence of TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome) in the authors when they categorize hydroxychloroquine as a “quack” remedy despite its use to ameliorate symptoms of COVID throughout the rest of the world.

Despite this medical caveat, the book will be useful to any individual wishing to understand and interpret the present world medical crisis and place it into a proper historic perspective.

J. Kemper Campbell, M.D., is a retired Lincoln ophthalmologist who helped care for hundreds of Nebraska patients who benefitted from the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat debilitating illnesses.

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