The Making of a Tropical Disease

Last month I took a bit of a detour from my normal reading and had a go at The Making of a Tropical Disease: A Short History of Malaria (Johns Hopkins Biographies of Disease). Here’s my Amazon Vine review:

Once upon a time there was a mosquito. And this mosquito carried something with her and gave it to everyone she met. Men in peculiar outfits sprayed all over the land, and the mosquito was banished, in that land at least.

This is the story of malaria. The story that I’ve heard.

But the actual story of Malaria is a lot more complex. Who would have, for instance, expected a history on a supposed tropical disease to begin with a study of a city in Northern Russia? The Making of a Tropical Disease does just that.

The Making of a Tropical DiseaseHonestly, this isn’t always a fun book to read. Some books are very good about inspiration and motivation and glide along in presenting the chosen perspective. This isn’t about inspiration or motivation. It is more ambitious. There are times in which it slows down and gets into details and spends a long time one what might seem a minor point. But, this negative isn’t really a criticism. These seemingly minor points are in fact important, and it is the tendency to gloss over such points that undermine so many attempts to respond.

This certainly is a well written book. Randall Packard is a very good writer, and even with my above comment I must add he does a wonderful job of making personal connection. In his journey through the history of where malaria spread he does not only relate facts and figures. He tells a story, and in telling that story has written a very, very solid history.

But more than a history The Making of a Tropical Disease is also really a book on global policy. Packard does not hide this fact. He is making the point that malaria is not simply a story about random mosquitoes who live in unfortunate places. Rather, malaria is a disease that responds to human interaction, and throughout history there is a direct correlation between policy, politics, land use, economics and the occurrence of malaria. Humans interact with this world, and this interaction is not neutral but rather creates changes. These changes can bring open the door to ill effects.

This is not simply asserted and then policies recommended that fit some pre-conceived political bias. Rather, Packard is very scientific and very good in his history, laying out clearly the practices and results that led to malaria in certain regions. He respects the use of sources and when making a leap in interpretation or dealing with a situation in which clear records might be sketchy he admits this. His interpretation of data, however, seems solid even when he must depend on inference.

Packard is laying an absolutely solid foundation to a holistic policy in regards to malaria, and more than malaria. In a way this is a very post-modern book. The pre-moderns suffered from nature. The moderns sought to conquer nature, overwhelming it. The mass application of DDT resulted. Packard builds a middle ground, arguing that we should neither be victims but nor should we deny our own impact. Instead, by understanding nature, malaria and mosquitoes and land and water and humanity, we can develop intentional policies that that reflect the unintentional answers to past malaria outbreaks.

This really is an extraordinary book. For those who are interested in diseases it makes for an interesting read. For those who are interested in global politics and policies it pushes beyond the usual responses and builds a solid case for real, lasting and healthy actions that can literally save lives and entire regions from decay.

My perspective on malaria was at the same time begun and provoked, leading me to see so much of global realities with a new understanding. Very few books can be considered transformational, but Packard really did transform my thinking.

This should be a required book for anyone involved in global studies.

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