Friday, September 18, 2009

Review: Smallpox, Death of a Disease

Henderson takes one of the monumental achievements in disease history and makes it readily accessible to the general public in a very fascinating portrayal of the eradication of smallpox.

What strikes me most about Henderson's perspective is how candid he is about his experience as head of the eradication. He is characteristically open about his efforts, often revealing the actual disease to be less of a problem than dealing with his superiors. If he makes anything obnoxiously clear, it's that when working on a global project one must choose the people to work with and ignore the calls of everyone else to get something done. The ins and outs of the WHO bureaucracy are very clearly present throughout the entire book, necessitating a search for loopholes that could only be carried out by our very cheeky, irreverent author. It's difficult not to admire his no-nonsense approach.

The book itself quickly documents how Henderson serendipitously was given the position that would define his career and then jumps into eradication. He goes through in minute, yet engaging detail the evolving strategy needed to tackle such a beast with little more than a picture of a dude with smallpox, freeze-dried vaccine, and a bifurcated needle. The only thing that I would chance criticizing in his book would be the slight repetitiveness of some of the chapters. While I'm sure the actual process was much more complicated, the ring-vaccination technique coupled with stringent surveillance seemed to be the general gist of more than half of the discussed regions, with slight adaptations for weather and political conditions in the remaining situations.

Even so, for one who is interested in the topic, I can't think of a better source than Henderson. The last few pages are a very nice capstone to the book, collecting what he gathered from his experiences to formulate his own strong opinion on where we should go from here. Definitely worth the read if you like poxy stuff.

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