The Plague Cycle by Charles Kenny
1/19/21; 320 pages
The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease by Charles Kenny is a highly recommended overview of the history of infectious diseases with some discussion of them in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The good news is that recent history suggests "humanity’s response to
the new threat can be rapid and effective if we so choose. And that
reassures us that humanity in the twenty-first century is in a
considerably better position in the fight against infection than earlier
generations. Because for most of humanity’s time on the planet,
effective responses never came." For most of history plagues and
diseases were the leading cause of death. Today it is heart attacks and
As Kenny points out, humanity is very resilient even in the face of
even the most incredible stress created by large scale epidemics,
pandemics and plague outbreaks. People lived through numerous epidemics
over the years- the Black Death, typhus, measles, small pox, without
resorting to social chaos and throwing morality aside. Agriculture and
civilization set off a global firestorm of disease, especially once
urbanization started. Before we started taking sanitary practices
seriously, the only effective way to exposure to diseases was to
quarantine the sick or refuse their entry to your area. Then, once we
understood hygiene, it became possible to have more urbanization, which
was further helped by medical advancements (sterilized medical
treatment, antibiotics, vaccinations, etc.) and the understanding of how
to combat infectious diseases.
As our world is becoming more globally connected, it is now more important to address our vulnerabilities to new emerging infectious diseases and potential plagues. For example, we need to address the overuse of antibiotics which has led to a strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The global reaction to Covid-19 showcases the need for international cooperation on several different areas.
As someone who has read many books of various infectious diseases, plagues, and epidemics it should be noted that this is not meant to be a complex or complete history of infectious diseases. It is a nice overview for the general reader who wants more information on the subject and the text flows smoothly from one chapter to the next. It is a well-rounded overview written for the lay person. For more information, Kenny has a bibliography of his sources or look at the notes included in the text for subjects you might want to pursue further. Kenny is the director of technology and development at the Center for Global Development.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.