Book Review: Seven Modern Plagues and How We Are Causing Them

Infectious Disease is interesting. In fact, I would wager that it forms at least part of the backbone leading to most medical students deciding to study medicine, regardless of whether or not they end up enjoying ID.

Seven Modern Plagues by Mark Jerome Walters investigates seven diseases causing havoc today. He looks at the circumstances that first brought them to us… and then illustrates how humanity has, in some way or another, influenced their massive growth. For example, the earliest known HIV case was in 1959, so how and why did it reach such large proportions in the 80s… and why do we still see new forms emerging?

This book is one of my favourite kinds of medical writing: it reads easily, but not so easily that it bores me. It has a good combination of things I already know and new information. The writing style is formal: not so academic as to be distant, not so colloquial as to lack respect for its subject matter.

Interesting things I learned included a better definition of prions than med school ever taught me, and the reason why doctors judiciously prescribing antibiotics is not enough to address the rising rate of antibiotic-resistant organisms.

Two things that bothered me: in the chapter on HIV, only one hypothesis is addressed, namely the bush meat hypothesis. And the chapter on Hantavirus is short… and almost feels rushed.

One important thing about Seven Modern Plagues is that it is not a “Green Peace” book. It elaborates on how we contribute to plagues, and how we can change that, but it is not violent in its assertions and it is not a fear monger. That said, the amount of dangerous disease that we do not have under control is quite horrifying. Walters may not be a fear monger, but his book is still terrifying.

quote seven modern plagues

This book could be prescribed reading for medical students (and other students in the health sciences). It succinctly explains concepts of vaccines, infectiousness, pathology and epidemiology – the kind of introduction that would prepare a student and light a fire of interest before a rotation commences.

Obviously another concern for me is that the book is very focused on the developed world – with the exception of HIV. Although a lot of its diseases originate from the developing world, it primarily addresses the influence of these “plagues” on the USA. In one sense I suppose that is good, as it refutes the stereotype of ID being the sole problem of developing countries. But in another sense, this whole book is dedicated to illustrating how we are NOT isolated… so I wish it had been more global. For example, in the chapter on West Nile Virus, after elaborating a lot on spread in the USA, Walters writes, “…the virus soon infected larger areas of Europe and Africa, as well as Australia.” And then… left it there. It seems a cop-out, and I yearned for more.

On the whole, though, what makes this book so valuable is that it not simply makes the claim that we are responsible for a lot of our biggest problems – it also meticulously explains why, and so gives us the opportunity to change it.

Thus I recommend this book with highest praise to professionals and students of the health sciences, as well as  other role players in politics and public health.

I received an eARC of this book via NetGalley and Island Press in exchange for an honest review. This has not altered my opinion in any way.


  1. KokkieH says:

    It sounds like something I’d enjoy reading, and I’m not even in medicine. Does it touch at all on the hypothesis that our hyper-hygienic lives nowadays are actually making us more susceptible to certain infections?

    I’m afraid non-fiction books by Americans tend to focus mostly on the US and seldom give more than lip-service to the rest of the world. It’s a shame, really, as they actually have the resources to do proper research about the developing world and the channels to expose the maximum number of people to that data. But it seems like the typical attitude (not restricted to Americans) of “it doesn’t directly affect me, so why should I bother”.

    1. It doesn’t really touch on that hypothesis too much, but it is similar in some ways. It does focus on how we feed our livestock antibiotics, and how we make the “wild” more “human friendly” and so on, which has definitely made it easier for us to get infections.

  2. harveylisam says:

    I love reading about infectious diseases, especially when it’s written kind of like a narrative and not a text book. I can definitely understand at being annoyed by the American-central perspective of the book, especially because the problem of infectious diseases in North American pales in comparison to how it affects the rest of the world (as you know).

    I’ll have to pick this up when I have time!

    1. Exactly, textbooks drive me insane so I go out of my way finding well-written books about similar topics.
      I didn’t really mind learning more about the American perspective, and I especially didn’t realise that so many pathogens had caused real problems for American cities (honestly, it had me a little worried about traveling :P), but I just would have liked it to be a little more rounded out by more global stats too.

  3. kdshives says:

    I will have to get a copy and see what the West Nile chapter says. My doctoral work focuses on this pathogen, it has a really interesting history, and is really slated to become a much larger problem due to the impacts of climate chance on vector prevalence and proximity to humans. Plus, Australia already had a circulating attenuated WNV strain called Kunjin, so saying it was introduced to Australia may be a misstatement depending on what the author was trying to get across.

    What has been interesting is that since about 1999 we’ve seen a shift from the febrile illness to more neuroinvasive infections and the founder strain in the US was characterized by enhanced neurovirulence compared to many old-world strains.

    1. This is very interesting! And scary. I haven’t heard of WNV occurring in South Africa but if it hasn’t, I’m sure it will in time… The book is written well but it’s also written to be accessible to the average interested person, so if you’re researching WNV for your doctoral work you’ll probably find that it doesn’t really tell you anything you didn’t already know. 🙂

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