'Secret Agents' -- plagues be upon us

March 10, 2002|By Diana K. Sugg | By Diana K. Sugg,Sun Staff

Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections, by Madeline Drexler. Joseph Henry Press. 300 pages. $24.95.

Americans give little thought to the teeming world of microorganisms in our midst: the billions of bacteria and viruses in our bodies, our food and our world. We buy groceries without considering foodborne infections. We push doctors for antibiotics without worrying that we may be contributing to antibiotic resistance. We travel widely without realizing we may carry home lethal viruses.

In the last several years, much has been written about the threat of these pathogens, but the new nonfiction book Secret Agents takes its place as a must-read for the latest on this crucial health issue. In this authoritative, compelling volume, science writer Madeline Drexler zeroes in on the most serious threats and shows how the country's fragmented, underfunded public health system has left us vulnerable to modern plagues.

Weaving vivid tales of outbreaks with the science, history, and politics of topics including bioterrorism, influenza and antibiotic resistance, Drexler's chapters read like dispatches from a war. By the end, her exhaustive reporting convinces us that there is no way around her scary conclusion: "What we face today is what we have always faced: one plague after another, and usually several at once."

She writes about real dangers, dangers that illustrate larger themes about man's battle with microbes. In revealing the behind-the-scenes drama of the West Nile virus outbreak in New York, for example, she shows how easily similar but more deadly pathogens could spread in the community. And in describing how E. coli bacteria became so virulent, she emphasizes how other bacteria could do likewise, with little trouble.

In one of the most intriguing chapters, Secret Agents explores a whole new arena for germs: the idea that bacteria, viruses and other pathogens cause chronic illnesses like heart disease, multiple sclerosis and breast cancer. Some examples of this controversial concept have already been proven; others will be difficult to demonstrate. But the theory could shift much in medicine in the coming years.

Some of the most potent parts of the book boil the situation down into simple, scary sentences. For instance, a billion bacteria inhabiting a thimble can be wiped out one day and back in full force the next. A single hamburger patty may mingle the meat of a hundred different animals from four different countries. While only rarely straying too far into the technical, the author has a wonderful way of illustrating the power of infectious agents, describing how bacteria can swap genes, or crank out a new generation every 20 to 30 minutes.

Perhaps because she was trying to cover so much ground, Drexler falls short in her attempt to give us insight into the lives of the scientists. But in revealing recent near-misses and outbreaks that could have killed thousands, Secret Agents leaves the reader with a nagging fear, and the disturbing knowledge that the public won't be able to dismiss this neglected universe of germs much longer.

Scientists, physicians and other public health professionals will read this book. Unfortunately, many other people, who desperately need to read it, may never pick it up.

Diana K. Sugg has been a health reporter at The Sun since 1993 writing about trends, scientific breakthroughs and the human aspects of medicine.

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