Hanta virus, West Nile virus, SARS, Q fever--these are just a few of the deadly diseases David Quammen (The Song of the Dodo) dissects in his haunting and authoritative Spillover. Quammen explains: "When a pathogen leaps from some nonhuman animal into a person, and succeeds there in establishing itself as an infectious presence, sometimes causing illness or death, the result is zoonosis." This process of "spillover" occurs all around the world, with the spread of infection from new or previously unknown diseases becoming more rapid as people travel for work and pleasure. Outbreaks can happen suddenly and rapidly--transmitted by a sneeze, a cough, a mosquito bite--whenever the number of nonimmune individuals is higher than those who are immune.
Well-researched and descriptive, but not lurid (think The Hot Zone), Spillover takes readers from the jungles of Africa in search of Ebola to rat farms in China (rats and bats carry many "spillover" diseases and are also on many Chinese dinner menus) to the Netherlands in search of the viruses and bacterium that can jump from an animal host to a human. Quammen provides in-depth analysis of each disease, its effect on humans and a sympathetic view of the men and women who are putting their lives on the line to study them. Spillover is full of death--painful, bloody and shocking--and the stuff of nightmares: bats, rats, snakes and "walls... alive with thirsty ticks." But this should not detract readers from Quammen's engrossing and scientific investigation. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer