There's a Genre for That? Medical Non-Fiction 

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Title image for page There is a genre for that? Medical non-fiction

 Post by Tessy W.

A sudden throbbing at your temples. Shivering until your bones seemed to jolt and creak beneath your skin, even as your fever spikes. The sweating starts. Sweating first through clothes and then blankets. And within a day, sometimes even hours,1 death.

The English sweating sickness killed between 30 to 50 percent2 of all who contracted it at the turn of the 16th century.  Appearing and retreating in five epidemics2, it sent the English upper class into hysterics as it struck not only the poor, but also ravaged the young, healthy, and more importantly, the rich.1

What caused the virulent ailment? Where did it go? The sweating sickness is an epidemiological mystery that leaves even modern experts guessing.

That's why my reading list is littered with medical non-fiction. From gripping tales of disease running rampart, to in-depth histories detailing medical breakthroughs, the world of medicine is as fascinating as it is terrifying.

Death rates from infectious diseases in the United States have plummeted from around 800 deaths per 100,000 people in 1900 to just 46 deaths per 100,000 people in 2014.Thus transforming the specter of violent and imminent death by disease into vague plans to schedule that annual physical, at least for patricular areas of the world like the United States.

The Hot Zone book cover

However, the phantom of disease still has the power to inspire prickles of nervous fear, and in some cases, outright panic. During the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the four cases4 that were diagnosed in the United States sent the country into a frenzy, making it impossible to turn around without catching another Ebola news headline.

In fact, "The Hot Zone" by Richard Preston was one of the first books of the genre I ever read. A classic New York Times bestseller,Preston plotted the emergence of the Ebola virus from the jungles of Central Africa and described the virus' hyperbolic lethality in gruesome detail. More is known about the terrifying virus since the book's publication date, but the air of terror around the then mysterious virus is near tangible in this fast-paced, scientific thriller and it is still well worth the read.

The Great Influenza book cover

Furthermore, if you're the sort to grumble about your annual flu shot, you might want to give "The Great Influenza" by John Barry a glance. Barry narrates the vicious onset and devastation of the 1918 flu pandemic in plentiful detail. Not only does he track the ravaging virus, but Barry, in exploring the question of why the virus was so monstrous, scrutinizes the history around the Spanish flu. From the setting of World War I to the emerging adeptness of the American medical community, the book chronicles one of the deadliest pandemics in human history with amazing scope and detail. Blinking up from its pages, you might be a little less reluctant next October when your doctor asks you whether you would like a flu shot.

Presently, the average American doesn't have to worry about a sweeping epidemic of Ebola or the flu. Instead, our illnesses come quietly, creeping forward through our bones, blood and flesh with ruthless intent. The leading cause of death in the United States is heart disease, but right on its heels, menacing on the edge of sight, is cancer.5The Emperor of All Maladies book cover

Dubbed "The Emperor of All Maladies" by Siddhartha Mukherjee in his book thus titled, cancer is disease at its worse. “Indeed, cancer’s emergence in the world is the product of a double negative: it becomes common only when all other killers themselves have been killed," according to Murkherjee.6 His sweeping epic of humanity's fight against cancer is an interweaving of narrative and lucid prose.  Explaining the devastation of how our own bodies can turn against us and the successive ways we have attempted to battle against cancer, he illuminates an illness that up until modern times, we'd been afraid to even speak of.

With a dramatic cast of characters, the genre of medical nonfiction can narrate like your standard novel, with the heroes garbed in white lab coats or hazmat suits. Until recently, we'd appeared to be marching past the climax in our perpetual struggle between sickness and health into a neat, healthful resolution. But perhaps disease is a timeless villain after all.

According to the World Health Organization, "antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today".7 Illnesses previously controlled by antibiotics such as bacterial pneumonia and tuberculosis, are now contributing to an estimated 23,000 deaths per year in the United States8; a surging tide of lethality caused by the misuse of one of humanity's greatest epiphanies.

Antibiotics are overused and inapplicably applied. Instead of prescribing antibiotics for legitimate bacterial infections, they are prescribed for illnesses such the flu, which are caused by viruses not bacteria, or given as a health supplement to livestock instead of strictly to sick animals. This confluence of misuse has driven the evolution of bacterial strains that are resistant to most of the antibiotics we have, and the discovery of new antibiotics is a slow process due to poor investment and regulations.9

The Coming Plague book cover

Unfortunately, antibiotic resistance is only one of many looming threats of the medical variety. If you're in the market for a doomsday directory, you might want to give "The Coming Plague" by Laurie Garrett a thorough read. Published in 1994, it has since proven its predictive power; the Ebola outbreak a few years ago being one of its many dire portents that has since become reality. In addition to foreshadowing 21st century health crises, Garrett also takes the time to detail the emergence and history behind many of the modern world's more villainous diseases such as HIV/AIDS. A hefty book packed with a decade of research, each chapter is crafted to keep you up at night.

Ultimately, the genre of medical nonfiction recounts an enduring battle of wits against humanity's greatest nemeses - and who can resist a plot like that? 

Interested in more medical nonfiction?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug by Thomas Hager

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

References

  1. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. Sweating sickness. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/sweating-sickness. Published July 5, 2017. Accessed December 12, 2017.

  2. Heyman P, Simons L, Cochez C. Were the English Sweating Sickness and the Picardy Sweat Caused by Hantaviruses? Viruses. 2014;6(1):151-171. doi:10.3390/v6010151.

  3. Rettner, R. (2017). 100 Years of Infectious Disease Deaths in US: Study Shows What's Changed. [online] Live Science. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/56968-infectious-disease-deaths-united-states-100-years.html [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].

  4. World Health Organization. (2017). Ebola virus disease. [online] Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/ [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].

  5. Cdc.gov. (2017). Leading Causes of Death. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].

  6. Mukherjee, S. (2012). Emperor of all maladies. Thorndike Press.

  7. World Health Organization. (2017). Antibiotic resistance. [online] Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/antibiotic-resistance/en/ [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].

  8. Antibiotic / Antimicrobial Resistance. About Antimicrobial Resistance. https://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/about.html. Published September 19, 2017. Accessed December 13, 2017.

  9. Ventola CL. The Antibiotic Resistance Crisis: Part 1: Causes and Threats. Pharmacy and Therapeutics. 2015;40(4):277-283.

Posted by zsmith@auroragov.org On 02 February, 2018 at 12:17 PM  

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