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Deadly Outbreaks: How Medical Detectives Save Lives Threatened by Killer Pandemics, Exotic Viruses, and Drug-Resistant Parasites

Deadly Outbreaks: How Medical Detectives Save Lives Threatened by Killer Pandemics, Exotic Viruses, and Drug-Resistant Parasites - Alexandra Levitt As the subtitle suggests, Deadly Outbreaks is all about medical mysteries. For suspicious cases where multiple patients die or fall ill and the reason is unknown, epidemiologists are often called in to help determine the cause. Some of these investigations are retrospective, but many require clever deduction to take place quickly in order to prevent more people from becoming sick.

The true stories included in Deadly Outbreaks were all interesting and all very different. Although the first story gave away the ending too early, all of the others had me reading quickly to find out what happened next. I am extremely interested in the intersection of biology and math, so the clever way epidemiologists used the data to solve problems and save lives made this my kind of book. However, some flaws in the writing kept this from being the riveting narrative non-fiction story it had the potential to be.

Two things in particular struck me as off about the writing but I did have an ARC so it’s possible these will be fixed before the book goes to print. In my copy, the tone of the book was very clinical. When we learned about the people involved in each case, the sections introducing them made me feel like someone was reading a resume at me. A few personal details were thrown in, but even these just felt factual. There were also too many details. For instance, the first case wrap-up includes a listing of which borough in NYC the patients were from. Information like this was far less interesting than the main story and slowed the pace of the whole book.

The science was the other big problem. In some cases, many scientific details were thrown in that even as someone in science, I didn’t find interesting (the size of a particular gene, for example). Often these asides weren’t explained well enough that someone without a science background would get anything out of them. These bits were really asides, so if you have no science background you could easily read this book and skip them without being confused. They didn’t, however, serve a useful purpose. Although I’ve spent a while on the bad bits, I don’t mean to suggest this wasn’t an enjoyable read. The stories were so interesting, they basically speak for themselves, so if you have an interest in medical mysteries, this is a book I’d recommend.

This review first published on Doing Dewey.