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Invisible Enemies: Stories of Infectious Disease    by Jeanette Farrell order for
Invisible Enemies
by Jeanette Farrell
Order:  USA  Can
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2005 (1998)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Invisible Enemies is about 'seven infectious diseases that have had a profound impact on human history' - Smallpox, Leprosy, Plague, Tuberculosis, Malaria, Cholera, and AIDS - but the book is much more involving than that sounds. Told with empathy and imagination, it's full of fascinating snippets of history, larger than life characters, and tales of real men and women tracking down causes and cures.

These accounts reveal the best and worst of humanity. And they're interspersed with photographs and drawings that make the history present, and show us how people understood (in most cases misunderstood) diseases in their times. In her Preface to this 2nd edition, Dr. Jeanette Farrell tells us she wrote the book 'to offer both warning and inspiration, to describe the great evil humans can do and the redeeming power of hope.' She gives us an overview of the development of medical understanding of disease from about the 1500s on, and explains infectious agents.

We learn that, before 1800, Smallpox affected one tenth of humanity. It has the distinction of being the only disease eradicated by mankind but, sadly, that may be undone by the hatred of those who consider using it as a biological weapon. The story of Smallpox includes a once-lovely lady who learned of inoculation in Turkey and spread the word to England, and an African slave who did the same in America (inoculations were practiced in countries like China, Africa and Turkey long before the technique was adopted by Europeans). And, of course, most people have already heard of Edward Jenner and the milkmaid.

Leprosy, now known as Hansen's Disease, is the least infectious, but for a long time it aroused great fear, which in turn led to great cruelty. I was interested to learn that it's not the disease itself that causes loss of fingers and toes, but the result of dead nerves and loss of feeling. I was also fascinated to learn that the only animal that can be used in research is the armadillo! The Plague is another disease that has changed world history, with three pandemics recorded. Its spread was facilitated by Genghis Khan's conquests and by a shrinking world. I found it interesting that the implication of rats was known to Indian scholars as early as 1100.

A full quarter of Europeans (including the poet Keats) died young from Turberculosis, commonly known as consumption, a slow, creeping disease. Research into this one resulted in the invention of the stethoscope and the development of antibiotics. And, it's interesting to note that one of Malaria's side effects was to protect Africa from more extensive colonialism, by infecting visiting Europeans. I found a discussion of John Snow's pioneering effort in epidemiology fascinating - he used statistics to trace the relationship between Cholera and contaminated water in 1854 London. And most of us already know the elusiveness of an effective treatment for AIDS.

I found this an inspiring read for adults as well as for teens; Jeanette Farrell makes it about real people - from a princess to a milkmaid, a master to a slave - coping with illness and finding ways to fight disease. She also shows us how the scientific process has evolved through the centuries, and makes clear what different implications these illnesses have for humanity. Read Invisible Enemies to be 'ready to live in a time of pestilence, to face the tricks the microbe world has to offer, and to discover what you can about the ways of the human spirit.'

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