“The End of October” Lawrence Wright

I am still diving into epidemiology (even though I cannot pronounce the word) and read Lawrence Wright’s “The End of October”. It is a novel about a world pandemic that he started writing in 2017. It is good timing for the book to come out in 2020 and it is on the New York Times Best Seller list.

Wright got a lot of things right! In the novel, the president puts the vice-president in charge, governments decree quarantines all over the globe, many people denying it is serious, etc. The source of his fictional influenza is a mystery until the very end, and for those of you who have not read the book, I will not spoil it. He named it the Kongoli Fever, which came from an HIV detention camp in Indonesia where the disease first came known to the world. The mortality rate of Kongoli is significantly higher than Covid-19, 30% which causes two major wars and a massive breakdown of society everywhere.

I absolutely loved the book because it was a thrilling story combined with lessons in public health, virology and history. You can see Wright did a lot of research and he has won prizes for his non-fiction. I want to read his books on Al Qaeda and the state of Texas. But his writing is so good, that even though you are learning a lot, it doesn’t feel like a lecture. The main character is Henry Parsons, a CDC virologist.

Below are some of my take-aways from the book:

  • “Disease was more powerful than armies. Disease was more arbitrary than terrorism. Disease was crueler than human imagination.” I agree with that and it is illogical to spend more money on fighting terrorism and boosting our military than we put into public health.
  • espalier – a fruit tree trained to grow flat against a wall
  • Researchers found there are 100 billion viruses in a single liter of seawater. The total number of viruses on earth is estimated to be 100 million times more than stars in the universe.
  • 8% of the human genome includes genes from ancient infections.
  • kvetch – Yiddish for a complainer
  • Influenza A is more virulent than Influenza B. Tamiflu is a drug that is effective against Influenza A because it inhibits an enzyme that helps produce more virus.
  • The 1918 Spanish Flu infected 500 million people worldwide and killed as many as 20% of people infected. It was an H1N1 hemorrhagic flu that turned lungs into a “bloody froth”.
  • “Typically, with a pandemic, you have 2 or 3 big waves of contagion before it settles down and becomes the normal flu you get every year.”
  • I want to know more about Albert Schweitzer, the French doctor that fought disease in West Africa. His fundamental principle of morality was “good means maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and that to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.”
  • anodyne – inoffensive
  • One major reason pools are chlorinated is that polio, an RNA virus like influenza, spread through fecal matter.
  • vaccination comes from the Latin “vacca” meaning cow which is a reference to milk maids who were immune to smallpox because they were exposed to cowpox. This was discovered by English doctor Edward Jenner in 1796.

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