Viruses, Plagues, and History:
Past, Present, and Future

Michael B. A. Oldstone

Oxford University Press 2020

Viruses: A Very Short Introduction

Dorothy H. Crawford

Oxford University Press 2018
A book review by Danny Yee © 2021
Published just as SARS-Cov-2 was becoming news, the second edition of Viruses, Plagues, and History touches on that in a preface; and it could almost have been written to set it in the context of other viral plagues.

Oldstone begins with a brief introduction to viruses and immunology. His focus is on the history, especially the discovery and understanding of different viruses, the public health response to them, the development of vaccines, and so forth. He looks first at the success stories — smallpox, yellow fever, measles, polio, and the hepatitis viruses — before looking at current challenges and possible future ones — Lassa fever, Ebola, hantavirus, SARS, West Nile virus, Zika, HIV, mad cow disease, and influenza. Oldstone ends with a look at anti-vaccination misinformation, and some of his own run-ins with its purveyors.

This is quite discursive: there are four separate references to the Louisiana Purchase, for example, and there's a page and a half on the lead-up to the US Civil War (the book as a whole is US- and Anglo-centric). There are also paragraph mini-biographies of doctors and epidemiologists and researchers that don't connect to much else. But mostly the narrative flows quite freely.

"The turning point came later, in November 2016, when Dr. Adriana Melo demonstrated that the amniotic fluid from a pregnant woman contained Zika virus. Shortly thereafter, brain tissues from two malformed fetuses proved to be positive for Zika virus. Vigorous scientific studies later confirmed the relationship between Zika virus infection and fetal death, microcephaly, infection of brain neural progenitor cells, peripheral neurons, and development defects after birth. ..."

Viruses, Plagues, and History is easy to read, but may work best for those who already have a bit of a biology background and want to read about the history.

In Viruses: A Very Short Introduction Crawford starts with a much clearer account of how viruses work, and a brief account of the history of their discovery and study. And while, like Oldstone, she focuses on viruses as the infectious agent behind human diseases, she includes a brief chapter "Viruses Everywhere" which takes a broader perspective. ("The majority of marine viruses are phages which infect and control marine bacteria populations.")

She uses a different typology for the human diseases, looking in turn at vertebrate-transmitted viruses, arthropod-transmitted viruses, pandemics (airborne and fecal-oral transmitted), persistent viruses, and tumour viruses, before describing vaccination successes and looking to the future. Otherwise Crawford covers similar topics to Oldstone, though at less length and with much less historical detail.

"Of the three human beta herpesviruses, CMV is the only one that causes significant health problems. Although the virus infects most people silently, it occasionally causes a glandular-fever-like illness at primary infection. But more importantly, the virus in a pregnant woman's blood may on rare occasions cross the placenta and infect her unborn child. When this happens, it causes cytomegalic inclusion disease in around 10 per cent of affected infants, inducing a wide range of symptoms including growth retardation, deafness, abnormalities of blood clotting, and inflammation of the liver, lungs, heart, and brain."

Unlike many of the Very Short Introductions, Viruses would be accessible without background knowledge, though someone with no biology at all would find it heavy going.

April 2021

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%T Viruses, Plagues, and History
%S Past, Present, and Future
%A Oldstone, Michael B. A.
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2020
%O paperback, 2nd edition, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9780190056780
%P 485pp

%T Viruses: A Very Short Introduction
%A Crawford, Dorothy H.
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2018
%O paperback, 2nd edition, glossary, further reading, index
%G ISBN-13 9780198811718
%P 158pp