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Friday, May 7, 2021

Our ability to detect and fight disease has deteriorated. One writer offers a sparky history of medical science.

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Out of Control: How Our Confined Vision of Disease Is Failing Our Children

Andrew Klavan

W.W. Norton & Company, 212 pp., $27.50

Here’s a virus hit parade for you.

Annette Powell’s landmark 1923 biography of Sigmund Freud centers on “the weird-tilly-tilly” lover (Marie-Claire) and catches the author reading to her baby in the bathtub — but not for the first time. No, a bit earlier in her life, Freud owned the House of Narcissus. Who knows? Powell might have made a good doctor. A heap of other old names makes this short book worth reading in sequence: Sickert, Lucian Freud, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf.

One of the things we have learned in recent years about “old” is what a disadvantage our mindset can be. Out of Control, by Andrew Klavan, is an incisive and nuanced read on this topic. And it’s not just generational ignorance: Disease scientists and epidemiologists are like most experts, expecting an orderly or predictable transmission of illness. Klavan races us along through history, covering pandemics from the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed 40 million people, to recent non-infectious man-made disasters such as terrorism and the global war on drugs. In Out of Control, we hear the observations of historians, cultural anthropologists, and journalists.

Some of the legends that have been flung around aren’t true. But what’s true is that, in some ways, the world has become a germier place. We may now sit in classrooms with wall-to-wall posters of rubber-bound mosquitos and life-preservers, but we once had few tools to cleanse ourselves of the virus that put Scott Fulton in the hospital. (And he was certainly lucky to have been diagnosed before he turned 21. Fulton’s flu was so severe that his immune system destroyed virtually his entire body.)

As Out of Control zeroes in on various recent and horrific pandemics, Klavan charts their impact as the disease spread — 15 million dead in 1918, 31 million dead in 1957, 9 million dead in 1968 — all of this after rising governments set out to educate the public that they could act as “vigilance agents.” As one political scientist later suggested, organizations “needed, ironically, to be more prudent about the methods they adopted to respond to the outbreak of infection.”

The result is that we’ve entered a health state “in which the panacea will be listed as an anti-vaccine vaccine.” One plus, Klavan suggests, is that it has revived a crucial part of the word. “Anti-vaccine” is one word that still retains meaning. “Anti-AIDS” won’t be as easy.

“So,” Klavan writes, “the virus population is, to an alarming degree, reproducing itself.”

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