The Virologist’s Bookshelf – Part 2

In this continuing series of blog posts, the Editor-in-Chief of Virology, Michael Emerman, recommends books chosen for their descriptions of the roles of viruses and viral disease in the broader contexts of human health, society and history.

Here’s part 2, with a book about polio and another on influenza.

Polio: An American Story – David M. Oshinsky
ISBN: 0195152948
Publication Date: 2006

PolioThis spring marks the 60th anniversary of the critical vaccine trial against poliovirus involving nearly 1.5 million elementary school children the United States that led to the certification of the first polio vaccine. Polio: An American Story describes how the face of a famous victim (Franklin Roosevelt) helped drive private philanthropy to underwrite the factious progress towards a vaccine. The book is especially fascinating for virologists for the description of the personal and political conflicts between competing vaccine strategies of the inactivated virus approach of Jonas Salk and the attenuated virus approach of Albert Sabin (and others) which shaped decisions in the polio field. The books is also eye-opening for its description of the deplorable lack of human subject controls in the early testing of both vaccines, the famous “Cutter Incident” where incompletely inactivated viruses lead to vaccine-related polio infections, and the mind-boggling scale-up to vaccination of tens of millions of children with the attenuated Sabin vaccine in the former USSR. The history of the polio vaccines is very relevant for appreciating some of the many problems faced with the development of an HIV vaccine.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History – John M. Barry
ISBN: 0143036491
Publication Date: 2004

TheGreatInfluenzaIf you want a reminder for the basis of the ongoing angst over potential adaptation H5N1 (bird flu) and now H7N9 to human-to-human spread, then The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History is the book to read. The outbreak killed 50-100 million people around the globe within a span of a single year. The book describes how World War I exacerbated the problem by overcrowding in army camps, the transport of infected troops from one local to another (and indeed around the world), the lack of resources to treat the sick, and, in hindsight, very poor political decisions that failed take action that might have slowed virus spread through the population. On the other hand, given the rapid spread of H1N1pdn across the world in 2009, it is not clear whether any of these failures in public health policies would have made much of a difference. Virologist will also appreciate the false leads that lead the central pathogenic suspect being identified as Hemophilus influenzae that seemed to fit some, but not all of the facts, and how the real culprit was finally implicated when influenza virus was isolated in later decades. The book also points out how much we still do not know about the viral determinants of influenza pathogenicity and virulence in humans.

Do you have any favorites that should go on the Virologist’s Bookshelf? Feel free submit them in a comment!

3 thoughts on “The Virologist’s Bookshelf – Part 2

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I haven’t read this one yet, but just checked it out of the library today. Pox Americana by Elizabeth Fenn describes the influence of smallpox on an earlier period of American history (the late 1700’s as opposed to the early 1900’s for Pox, an American History) and I write about that one in Part 4 of “The Virologist’s Bookshelf” which will be posted next month.

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