A Pandemic Page-Turner

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Nov. 29, 2021 — Talking about dread diseases might not be your idea of fun holiday conversation, but Lydia Kang, MD, co-author of Patient Zero: A Curious History of the World’s Worst Diseases, thinks it should be.

After all, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and this isn’t the first time we’ve faced a pathogen. We sat down with Kang, a primary care doctor in Omaha, NE, to find out what inspired her to write this book, which includes the compelling human stories behind such outbreaks as smallpox, bubonic plague, polio, HIV, and COVID-19, and why it’s a must-read.

WebMD: It must have been surreal to write a book about scary diseases during a pandemic.

Kang: When my co-author, Nate Pedersen, and I decided to write the book, it was pre-pandemic. Then something started to percolate in Wuhan, and we thought, “Maybe this will end up in the book.” We had no idea it was going to become a global pandemic.

WebMD: What’s fascinating is that COVID-19 isn’t the main focus of your book.

Kang: Exactly. Our book isn’t solely focused on COVID-19. It’s about the interactions between humans and infectious diseases and the fun/interesting history of the science behind it. We cover mad cow disease, measles, and all the quackery that surrounds the spread of a disease, from mercury and bloodletting to hydroxychloroquine.

WebMD: What do you want people to know about the COVID-19 pandemic and bats?

Kang: Don’t hate bats. I think that’s again one of those really classic beliefs that all these zoonotic spillover events are coming from bats and that these animal species are terrible. That blame game isn’t helpful. These animals have a right to be here. It’s not necessarily their fault they have coronaviruses teeming inside of them. Bats have lived with these really unusual, strange viruses for a long time, but it doesn’t kill them. We actually have a lot to learn from them.

WebMD: What worries you about what’s coming down the pike, infectious-disease-wise?
Kang: Once COVID-19 settles down and perhaps becomes an endemic virus just like the flu, there could be another one. The vast majority of new infections (more than 60%) are zoonotic, which means that they come from animal sources. Those spillovers are trying to happen constantly. We’re always being barraged with the possibility of other viruses and, while most can’t pass from person to person or replicate in humans, that one in a million showed up, and that’s probably what COVID-19 was.

WebMD: How can we be prepared for the next one?

Kang: This is a huge wake-up call for different countries to be more prepared. COVID-19 was bad, but it could have been worse. So what we need to do is to push out vaccines quickly — we have great technology — and we should communicate better with other countries earlier than we did this time.

WebMD: Should this book be required reading?

Kang: That would be amazing. In one of our reviews, a writer wrote that this book would be well-placed in a library. I would love to see it in classrooms and college curriculums that cover the human relationship with infectious disease. Sometimes, science can be dry and hard to understand. We tried to make our book something readable, somewhat entertaining and important.

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