Pandemic, Sonia Shah

I read Pandemic author Sonia Shah’s book The Body Hunter a few years back and was not satisfied with the quality of her citations. While I totally stand by that (the endnotes in that book were a mess), and I was all set to think ill of Pandemic also, actually the endnotes in this one were way much better sorted out. I conclude that she had better copyeditors this time around.


This book’s about the spread of infectious diseases, and Sonia Shah herself admits that she’s not sure how to tell the story she wants to tell. Much of her research, and a good chunk of the book, is devoted to cholera: its paths of infection, some of its major outbreaks over the course of history, and the ways it continues to rear its head even though we already know how to cure it. But the book isn’t fundamentally about cholera, so another large chunk of it talks about vectors for infection, the emergence of new diseases, and a whole bunch of other things that don’t get explored in super-depth.

A fluffy cholera bacterium!

Pandemic is interesting and taught me some things I didn’t know, like that birds rarely pass diseases to humans unless there are also pigs nearby, in which case it goes birds –> pigs –> humans; but overall, it’s neither one thing nor the other. Not a comprehensive history of cholera, not a thorough exploration of how new diseases emerge and take root, and not an overview of pandemics and how we’ve handled them.

It did, however, make me feel paranoid about ever touching animals again. Or water. Or other people. Or about taking an antibiotic. OCD runs in my family and I sometimes feel that it is perilously close to the surface. But I sensibly went to my parents’ place and petted the hell out of my dog Jasmine, and I even let her lick my ears one lick, and that reminded me that pandemics are unlikely but Jazz will always love me. So there, diseases.

  • I love plush bacteria! And they are way better to have than the other kind, well, except the good kind… (And well, I love plush anything…)

    • I know, aren’t they cute? They have a cancer cell that you can turn inside out and it becomes a nice healthy cell, which I think is so awesome. I got one for my aunt while she was having chemo! (& she recovered. I’m not saying it’s because of the plushy cancer cell, but maybe.)

  • Jeane Nevarez

    Reminds me of a board game my sister introduced me too, also called Pandemic. Cooperative stuff about trying to stop the spread and wipe out the disease.

    • I played that once! We were NOT good at it. The disease totally won, and like, terrifyingly quickly.

  • There is a great book called The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Stephen Johnson. Long title, great book. It focuses on one localized outbreak, which really helps put it in perspective. And it includes things you’d never think about, like the rise in popularity of tea meant people boiled their water more frequently, leading to better mortality rates, leading to denser populations, leading to squalid living conditions, making it a perfect breeding grounds for an epidemic.

    • I read that and reeeeally liked it! Like you say, it hit on a lot of elements in creating the outbreak that would never have occurred to me.

  • This sound fascinating and scary. I try not to think TOO much about the potential lack of working antibiotics and what that means to us. If I linger too long on it, I might have to put my kids into a plastic bubble and never let them leave.

    • Yeah, I hear that. If you dwell on it, it’s too scary. Knowing that the meat industry is contributing disproportionately to the development of antibiotic-resistant bugs is making me seriously consider becoming a vegetarian, or at least sourcing my meat more responsibly.

  • I love this stuff so much, so this book is right up my alley. Also a reminder that I have Spillover on my shelves and need to read it (for more disease-packed goodness).

    • *googles Spillover* oh yeah, that looks really good too. I have been meaning to read David Quammen for a while, actually!

  • I second MW’s recommendation for The Ghost Map. And I share Shannon’s love for reading all this scary stuff. But I LOVE your preventative measures against paranoia of pandemics. Animals are the best, and I resist believing that they might make us sick. In fact, I’m more inclined to think that we make them sick!

    • One thing that was so interesting while reading this book was the specific combinations of events that conspire to create diseases that can jump from animals into humans. Shah was saying that although birds do not typically give diseases straight to humans, if there are birds and pigs and people all living in close proximity, the diseases will often jump from the birds to the pigs to the humans. We are just more susceptible to pig diseases. Weird, right?

  • Doesn’t sound focused enough for me; I’d rather read something where the author knew exactly what and how to tell their story. Also the idea of messy footnotes is literally giving me reactionary hives atm.

    • No, no, the footnotes in this one are okay! These ones are fine. They’re so fine that it made me wonder if her last book was just an issue of hasty editing, rather than actually sloppy sourcing. (Eh, but maybe not.)

  • What a cute cholera bacterium 😀 Glad to hear her endnotes were up to it this time round cause I love the sound of this one! Also, never take antibiotics if you can get around it, they ruined my gut!
    It’s completely different, but not, Serre’s The Parasite. It’s about how human relationships echo that of parasites to host bodies. I had to work at it (philosophical text) to understand more than the gist, but thought it was pretty good. And maybe up your alley. Warning for white dude author ;P Also, Contagious by Priscilla Wald. I just cannot stop with the cultural & social history angle!

    • I never get sick (said Jenny, knocking wood), so I very rarely take antibiotics. I think I took two a few years ago, for what cause I cannot now remember. Oh, no, that’s a lie. I was prescribed some by my doctor in case I got sick while I was in India, but I didn’t get sick while I was in India so I didn’t take any.

      YESSSSSSS to the Priscilla Wald book in particular, that sounds amazing. I too cannot resist with the cultural/social history angles!

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    I feel very friendly toward the fluffy cholera bacterium which seems all kinds of wrong. I was going to ask if the book made you feel paranoid but you answered my question. I want to know about this kind of stuff but I am already paranoid about it so I just don’t know what to do.

  • Haha, this made me nervous about animals too! Certainly pigs and birds, anyway. I really enjoyed this and I felt like the author succeeded pretty well at doing two things at once. I think you or someone else asked me about the quality of the citations in this book because they were bad in her last book. I thought they were just fine in this book, but without having read her other books, I did wonder if I just had low standards or hadn’t paid enough attention to the citations in this one, so I’m glad to hear from you that they are actually better than in her previous book 🙂

  • Annabel Gaskell

    We have a whole collection of the cuddly microbes we use in science lessons with our Y5s (9-10yrs). They love them – great teaching aid.