“Until recent decades people didn’t live long enough to die of heart failure. Rather, they were felled by a range of infectious diseases that picked off the very young or swept through whole populations in pandemic catastrophe.”
Thus begins Charles Kenny in his recent book “The Plague Cycle.” Most books in the rapidly growing pandemic literature have been written by epidemiologists or other medical scientists, but Kenny is neither. He is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Washington, DC, based research organization. He has written extensively on the role of technology in the development of third world nations.
Kenny argues persuasively that the progress of civilization over the past millennia has been dramatically influenced by the presence of infectious disease. He cites well-supported data to suggest that the out-migration of the earliest cultures from their ancestral homes in Africa was driven in large part by the necessity to escape infectious and parasitic diseases. As the population grew and dispersed so did the need for trade, expanding the potential for transmission of disease not only from the environment to humans, but also between societies and the individuals within them.
An outgrowth of the concept of infectious disease was the development of exclusion as a means of controlling it. Kenny cites the extensive Old Testament rules for isolation of those suffering from “loathsome” diseases, such as leprosy. A corollary of this practice, derived from the growing ethnic and racial diversity of the human population, was the erection of cultural barriers between those of differing backgrounds and beliefs. This practice of exclusion, Kenny argues, was a major stimulus to the development of the contemporary concept of the nation-state.
Kenny traces the history of the growth of sanitation practices as a method of reducing the impact of infectious disease. And he outlines the history and science of immunization practice that has led to the development of effective preventive techniques for many of the formerly devastating diseases of childhood.
The last chapters of the book outline both the triumphs and failures of the response to recent infectious disease outbreaks, notably the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 and of course the current Covid-19 pandemic.
“Millions still die prematurely from preventable diseases in part because we’re underutilizing sanitation and vaccination while overusing antibiotics, and we’re intentionally developing new diseases as weapons.”
Yet even after writing these pessimistic words, Kenny concludes the book with optimism, both for the rapid advance of medical science that has led to improvement of quality of life in the past decades, as well as the advances in public health that have cut the rate of infant mortality worldwide by 80 per cent over the last 50 years..
Kenny’s book is well researched and well written. It is presented in a style that lays out large amounts of historical data in a manner that should hold the interest of most readers.