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Read “Deadliest Enemy” for Deep Background on Pandemics and the Danger of a Second Wave



The photo above, taken from “Deadliest Enemy’s” cover, says it all. The image depicts a “real life” scenario showing how this potentially deadly virus can spread, for example in an airport. Of course, in real life the “droplets”, as they are now known, are not florescent yellow. Too bad. If they were at least we could clearly see how dangerous it is to be in a crowded area while this disease, which currently has no treatment or vaccine, is on the loose.

Mark Olshaker and Michael Osterholm’s bestselling book “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs” is more relevant today than ever before. Just as in San Francisco, in 2018, we are about to enter a phase where the “all clear” will be announced, setting the stage for a potential second wave.

“Siren wails on November 21, 1918 signaled to San Franciscans that it was safe, and legal, to remove their masks. All signs indicated that the flu had abated. Schools re-opened, and theaters sought to make back the $400,000 they had lost during each of the six weeks they were closed… Barely two weeks after the celebratory removal of masks, new flu cases were reported. Five thousand new flu cases would surface in December 1918 alone.”

Excerpt from “The Flu in San Francisco” / PBS

Years before COVID-19 was on the map author Mark Olshaker and disease epidemiologist Michael Osterholm collaborated to write a book exploring the (then hypothetical) concept of an infectious disease spreading across the modern world. The final product outlines how easily such a disease could spread in our globalized society, how governments and scientists might react to it, and what a bio-fallout would mean for cultures and individuals across the planet.

Deadliest Enemy Book cover
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Obviously, such a situation is no longer theoretical. Olshaker and Osterholm’s concepts are in fact quite pertinent during the coronavirus pandemic. Their illustration of geo-political and medical scrambling to fight off a never-before-seen threat is eerily astute.

Fourteen chapters make up the book, each one investigating a different infectious disease from the past three decades. It goes into detail about how the world handled (or failed to handle) acute respiratory syndrome, AIDS/HIV, Zika, Ebola, and many other outbreaks. Even while studying the past, though, the authors keep a pulse on the future, constantly thinking about how we can learn from previous situations, and consider what those situations might look like on larger, perhaps planetary scales.

Olshaker and Osterholm conclude that major diseases can fall into four different threat levels—pathogens of pandemic potential, pathogens of critical regional importance, bioterrorism, and endemics. Of course, diseases can evolve along this spectrum, but the authors offer advice on how we can respond to them on each step of the way.

Read More: Wildly Optimistic Assumptions for a Post-Pandemic Future: Sci-Fi Doomsday or Utopian Dream?

They liken curing or preventing diseases to solving puzzles. There are more pieces than one might expect, and the final product is somewhat of a mystery. The solution will not come solely out of a lab; it will take cooperation on many fronts including politicians, healthcare providers, medical and pharmaceutical professionals, and of course, everyday people who are vulnerable and instrumental in the spread or containment of an illness.

“Deadliest Enemy” is part history, part current events, and part memoir. The authors, offer up their own experiences in the field—most notably Osterholm’s disturbing eye-witness account of La Crosse encephalitis—while tapping into something larger than any single person. The book met high praise upon release, and the CDC recognizes it as a significant contribution to the world of written work on diseases.

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