The most chilling parts of the book, however, are the original ones. Honigsbaum is a gifted explainer of medical science — everything you need to know about epidemiology is here — but he can also write like a detective novelist. The chapter on Sars describes, thrillingly, how investigators traced the spread of the disease back to a single cough in a Hong Kong hotel corridor. The chapter on psittacosis, or parrot fever, reveals how a draught blew dried parrot faeces under the crack of a door, infecting workers in the very lab where the mysteriously dying birds were being studied.
In total The Pandemic Century presents us with nine examples of disease outbreaks that have afflicted humanity over the last century, among them the appearance of the Zika virus in Brazil in 2015 and, bizarrely, the great parrot fever pandemic that struck the US in 1930. In the latter case, parrots were discovered to be passing on deadly pathogens to their owners, spreading a disease that continued unchecked for months – because scientists had misidentified the agent involved. It was only when the real killer – a bacterium called Chlamydia psittaci – was identified that doctors were able to tackle the condition. In fact, only 33 people were killed by parrot fever in the US and even fewer in Europe – which somewhat strains Honigsbaum’s definition of a pandemic. This is a small complaint, however. Honigsbaum has written a fascinating account of a deeply important topic – for if the past 100 years have taught us anything, it is that new diseases and viral strains will inevitably beset us, no matter how sophisticated science becomes. As Honigsbaum puts it: “Pestilences may be unpredictable but we should expect them to recur.”