Book Review: Pandemic by Sonia Shah

Given the sensationalism about several different diseases over the past few years this was a topical choice of book for me to read. Sonia Shah’s book Pandemic is not so much a litany of what the world is doing wrong in regards to disease so much as a cautionary tale about how the world can get it right to avoid the outbreak of a deadly disease that is eminently preventable.

The book itself is 218 pages of text divided into 10 chapters with a glossary, extensive (over 30 pages) notes, and an index. The chapters are very logically organized with the topic of one chapter logically leading to the next. The writing style is engaging and carries you along imparting information without being overwhelming. Ms. Shah has a very adept way of explaining difficult concepts such that those without a background on microbiology or epidemiology can understand the concepts she presents.

The book focuses on the story of the emergence and spread of cholera in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a way of illustrating how other modern pathogens can arise. The book also discusses some of the more recent diseases to emerge in the last 15 or so years such as SARS, H5N1, and Avian Flu. She correctly points out that these new diseases have not been particularly deadly and for the most part do not readily spread. The exception is Ebola which emerged and caused its first large-scale epidemic in West Africa in 2015 and upon which Ms. Shah briefly discusses. Luckily, Ebola is not that easily spread if sensible precautions are taken, otherwise the death toll from Ebola would likely have been in the hundreds and not tens of thousands.

The biggest takeaway from the book that I got is how stunningly unprepared the world and individual governments are for a major disease outbreak. If, and it is probably not a big if, a deadly disease were to emerge and start to spread it is highly likely that a large portion of the world’s population would be at risk. Another of the better parts of the book is the chapter on drug resistance and the coming uselessness of the anti-biotics that the world has come to take for granted.

This is a well-written, thought provoking book that if nothing else should serve as a call to action to prepare for the pandemic that is in all likelihood coming in the decades ahead. I highly recommend this book.