Our archives

Major Funders:
Foundation for Community Vitality
Greater Montana Foundation
Encouraging communications on issues, trends and values of importance to Montanans.

On the Bookshelf


Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

By: Barbara Theroux
Fact and Fiction
for Mountain West News
Jan. 24, 2013

"The purpose of this book is not to make you more worried. The purpose of this book is to make you more smart. That’s what distinguishes humans from, say, tent caterpillars and gypsy moths. Unlike them, we can be pretty smart."

- David Quammen

Flu season is upon us. As the news tracks the spread of the latest illness, those who did not get flu shots in the fall are encouraged to get one now before the vaccine is gone. Travelers exploring summer trips to other continents, plan to visit the health department for immunizations. After a spring hike, people and dogs are aware of the need to look for ticks.

We like to think we take precautions and that we will remain healthy. We are one step ahead of viruses. But David Quammen wants to prepare us for the NBO's---the Next Big Ones, the diseases of the future. After reading "Spillover" you may dread ever going near a bat cave, let alone entering a room full of coughing and sneezing people.

Quammen blends science and journalism, speculation and fact, as well as horror and humor, in his latest book. He travels the globe exploring cases of zoonosis--infectious diseases that originate in animals and spread to humans. The technical term is "spillover." It's likely that all infections began as spillovers.

"Most people aren’t familiar with the word “zoonotic,” but they have heard of SARS, they have heard of West Nile virus, they have heard of bird flu. They know someone who has suffered through Lyme disease and someone else who has died of AIDS. They have heard of Ebola, and they know that it is a terrifying thing (though they may confuse it with E. coli, the bacterium that can kill you if you eat the wrong spinach). They are vaguely aware. But they don’t have the time or the interest to consider a lot of scientific detail. I can say from experience that some people, if they hear you’re writing a book about such things—about scary emerging diseases, about killer viruses, about pandemics—want you to cut to the chase. So they ask: “Are we all gonna die?” I have made it my little policy to say yes.

Yes, we are all gonna die. Yes. We are all gonna pay taxes and we are all gonna die. Most of us, though, will probably die of something more mundane than a new virus lately emerged from a duck or a chimpanzee or a bat."

Simply put, a zoonosis is an animal infection that, through a simple twist of fate, becomes transmissible to humans. Maybe that twist is a needle prick, or contact with an exotic animal or hiking downwind of the wrong farm. A list of zoonotic diseases sounds familiar and exotic:

"Ebola is a zoonosis. So is bubonic plague. So was the so called Spanish influenza of 1918-1919, which had its ultimate source in a wild aquatic bird and , after passing through some combination of domesticated animals (a duck in southern China, a sow in Iowa?) emerged to kill as many as 50 million people before receding into obscurity. All of the human influenzas are zoonoses. So are monkeypox, bovine tuberculosis, Lyme disease, Wes Nile fever, Marburg virus disease, rabies, hantavirus, pulmonary syndrome, anthrax, Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever, ocular larva migrans, scrub typhus, Bolivian hemorrhagic fever, Kyasanur forest disease, and a strange new affliction called Nipah encephalitis, which has killed pigs and pig farmers in Malaysia. Each of them reflects the action of a pathogen that can cross into people from other animals."

"Spillover" gives the reader, science, history, mystery, and human investigations, as Quammen traces the origins of Ebola, Marburg, SARS, avian influenza, Lyme disease, and other bizarre cases of spillover. He interviews survivors, finds surprises in the latest research, and deep concern in the eyes of researchers.

Most readers will not be making a list of places to visit from his trips, but all of us should think about where we go and the ease that a pathogen might be transported. The sections of the book and diseases investigated include:

  • In Australia, a virus called Hendra that spilled over from bats into horses and from there into people.

  • In the Congo, the mass deaths of gorillas potentially connected to a spillover of Ebola virus.

  • In Borneo, an epidemiologist investigates the spread of monkey malaria into people.

  • In China, the place where local bats in 2003 infected civet cats and then people with the virus that causes SARS.

  • In upstate New York, capture the white-footed mice that harbor the agent that causes Lyme disease.

  • In Bangladesh, trap monkeys that were spreading Herpes B.

  • In Cameroon, trace the origin of HIV to chimpanzee-human transmission around 1908, probably through blood-borne transmission involved in the killing of the animal for food.

  • In Uganda, scientists find evidence that bats were the source of Marburg and other zoonoses.

  • In Western Montana, where the collapse of an invasion of tent caterpillars was due to a pathogenic virus.

The author interviews virologists, doctors, field biologists and survivors as they describe the confusion, the horror and the investigations of disease outbreaks. Throughout the book, scientific facts are interspersed with adventure and human interest. Human medicine and veterinary science converge as experts track and discover diseases worldwide. But the job description of a veterinary-minded medical expert is not for the faint of heart.

"Discovering where a virus lives in the wild is work of a very different sort. It’s an outdoor job that entails a somewhat less controllable level of risk, like trapping grizzly bears for relocation. Now, the people who look for wild viruses aren’t rowdy and careless, no more so than the lab specialists; they can’t afford to be. But they labor in a noisier, more cluttered, more unpredictable environment: the world. If there is a reason to suspect that a certain new virus infecting humans is zoonotic (as most such viruses are), the search may lead into forests, swamps, crop fields, old buildings, sewers, caves, or the occasional horse paddock. The virus hunter is a field biologist, possibly with advanced training in human medicine, veterinary medicine, ecology, or some combination of those three—a person who finds fascination in questions that must be answered by catching and handling animals."

The researchers Quammen interviews remind us that as our population continues to grow, we will move into habitats with unfamiliar, dangerous microorganisms, and as international travel becomes more popular, those microorganisms can be transmitted faster and farther than ever before. From what innocent creature, in what remote landscape, will the Next Big One emerge?

"…scientists are on alert. They are our sentries. They watch the boundaries across with pathogens spill. And they are productively interconnected with one another. When the next novel virus makes its way from a chimpanzee, a bat, a mouse, a duck, or a macaque into a human, and maybe from that human into another human, and thereupon begins causing a small cluster of lethal illnesses, they will see it—we hope they will, anyway—and raise the alarm.

Whatever happens after that will depend on science, politics, social mores, public opinion, public will, and other forms of human behavior. It will depend on how we citizens respond.

We have increased our population to the level of 7 billion and beyond. We are well on our way to 9 billion before our growth trend is likely to flatten. We live in high densities in many cities. We have penetrated, and we continue to penetrate, the last great forests and other wild ecosystems of the planet, disrupting the physical structures and the ecological communities of such places…We kill and butcher and eat many of the wild animals found there. We settle in those places, creating villages, work camps, towns, extractive industries, new cities. We bring in our domesticated animals, replacing the wild herbivores with livestock….We export and import livestock across great distances and at high speeds. We export and import other live animals, especially primates, for medical research. We export and import wild animals as exotic pets…We travel, moving between cities and continents even more quickly than our transported livestock. We stay in hotels were strangers sneeze and vomit. We eat in restaurants where the cook may have butchered a porcupine before working on our scallops. We visit monkey temples in Asia, live markets in India, picturesque villages in South America, dusty archaeological sites in New Mexico, dairy towns in the Netherlands, bat caves in East Africa, racetracks in Australia—breathing the air, feeding the animals, touching things, shaking hands with the friendly locals—and then we jump on our planes and fly home. We get bitten by mosquitoes and ticks. We alter the global climate with our carbon emissions, which may in turn alter the latitudinal ranges within which those mosquitoes and ticks live. We provide an irresistible opportunity for enterprising microbes by the ubiquity and abundance of our human bodies."

“Spillover” is less public health warning than ecological affirmation: these crossovers force us to uphold “the old Darwinian truth (the darkest of his truths, well known and persistently forgotten) that humanity is a kind of animal” — with a shared fate on the planet.

“People and gorillas, horses and duikers and pigs, monkeys and chimps and bats and viruses,” Quammen writes. “We’re all in this together.”

Barbara Theroux is the manager of Fact & Fiction, now part of the Bookstore at the University of Montana.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

by David Quammen

published by W.W. Norton and Company

  • Hardcover
  • October 2012
  • ISBN 978-0-393-06680-7
  • 6.6 x 9.5 in / 592 pages

About the Author

David Quammen is the author of eleven books including, most recently, "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of his Theory of Evolution."

His 1996 book, "The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions," won the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing and several other awards, and he has three times received the National Magazine Award for his essays and other short work.

He is a Contributing Writer for National Geographic Magazine, and presently holds the Wallace Stegner Chair in Western American Studies at Montana State University.

He lives in Bozeman, Mont., with his wife, Betsy Gaines, a conservationist.

"Y ou could say this looks like a D-minus report card. To us, this is how it is. We wanted to take a good, hard look and develop a strategy for how to work in that world. We don’t have all the money we’d want. We don’t have all the workforce we’d want. We don’t have the ability to take care of everything the way we’d like. This is the landscape we’re working in. Let’s see how to address this."

George Bain, Forest Service Region 1 director of recreation, lands, minerals, heritage and wilderness, discussing the “Northern Region Sustainable Recreation, Heritage, Wilderness Strategy 2015-2020” report.

- Missoulian

On The Bookshelf
Barbara Theroux provides a preview of coming book attractions for 2016


Mountain West Perspectives
The TransPacific Partnership could affect Rocky Mountain States' local measures


Mountain West Voices
Hear weekly stories from the Rocky Mountain West as gathered by Clay Scott

Mountain West News is a program of the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West

at the

The University of Montana