The Virus Hunters by Joe McCormick & Susan Fisher-Hoch

virusI was moved to pick this book up at the library because of an interest in the field of infectious disease that the two authors work in. It recounts their personal descriptions of their professional history as epidemiologists and immunological investigators working for the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) both in the US and at various points around the globe where an outbreak of some infectious disease has occurred. Their aim, to put a personal face on the victims and diseases that strike horror into the minds of people in the developed world such as Ebola and Lassa Fever.

Judging by the third writing credit, I assume that this book was ghostwritten to a degree. Certainly it is apparent that their skills were better spent curing diseases than crafting novels! However, that is not what this book is about so it doesn’t suffer too much from the fact that it is more a transcribed monologue than a work of literary prowess. It is not so stilted as to interfere with the reader’s enjoyment. After all, it is the content rather than the style that is of prime importance. Nonetheless, occasionally the heavy-handed transitions from one ‘voice’ to the other (e.g. “I’ll let Joe take it from here”) did grate. I felt that the main narrator, McCormick, had the most interesting and relevant tale to tell. I did wonder whether Fisher-Hoch would have been selected as a second narrator had she not been married to McCormick! It was, I think, more distracting than informative to switch perspectives.

Despite these criticisms, it remains a fascinating book if you are at all interested in the field of infectious diseases. It did, to a large extent, achieve its goal in putting a human face to the victims of these diabolical haemorrhagic fevers. Albeit one that differed depending on your nationality – despite all the professions of anger at the treatment of the developing world’s sick and dying by the Western world, it did not escape my notice that the authors themselves were guilty of the same double standards when ‘one of their own’, a British nurse got sick – something that I didn’t get the impression they acknowledged. I also found them to be exceedingly US-centric. I work in the British scientific community and their condescension and patronising tone when describing non-US science and medicine did not sit well, the US being not quite so all-powerful as they would have liked us to believe.

As an unprecedented first-hand account of what it’s like to work on the front-line in the battle against emerging infectious diseases, this is certainly to be recommended. As a work of literary prowess, it is left hanging. I would recommend it to people who find the subject matter interesting, I don’t believe the writing is good enough to encourage those who are ambivalent to stick with it.

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