Monday, February 12, 2024

Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations (Simon Schama)

Before Covid-19, periodic bouts of contagion ravaged cities and countrysides throughout the world, killing multitudes. Smallbox, cholera, and bubonic plague ebbed and flowed based on movement of people and pests. Combating these diseases, people looked for ways to protect populations and come up with innovative solutions, even in places that didn't seem to be the most innovative for scientific breakthroughs.

In Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations, author Simon Schama highlights a number of unsung heroes throughout the centuries, most notably Waldemar Haffkine, a Jewish student in Odessa who became a microbiologist under Louis Pasteur. Haffkine developed a cholera and bubonic plague vaccine that saved millions of lives in British India around the beginning of the 20th Century. He was celebrated by the masses but shunned by the scientific community of the time. Haffkine's innovation in developing mass-produced vaccines helped set the stage for mass innoculations that would protect against a long list of diseases.

Foreign Bodies is ultimately a great story but ends rather awkwardly with its pivot to modern-day anti-vaccine movements. The book's final chapter on Covid-19 seems almost like a rant against those who disliked Anthony Fauci, instead of covering a nearly eight-decade history of vaccine and global communities coming together under the World Health Organization (WHO). Covid-19 produced a wide range of policy decisions for population health, ranging from near "anything goes" to WHO-supported lockdowns similar to those in China. The book would have ended more effectively if it offered less of a political rant, which provided a down ending to a great story.