November 29, 2021 – Talking about dreadful illnesses might not be your idea of a fun vacation talk, but Lydia Kang, MD, co-author of Patient Zero: A Curious History of the Worst Diseases in the World, think it should be.
After all, we are in the midst of a pandemic, and this is not the first time that we have faced a pathogen. We sat down with Kang, a primary care physician in Omaha, NE, to find out what inspired her to write this book, which includes the fascinating human stories behind epidemics such as smallpox, bubonic plague, polio , HIV and COVID-19, and why it’s a must-read.
WebMD: It must have been surreal to write a book about scary diseases during a pandemic.
Kang: When my co-author, Nate Pedersen, and I decided to write the book, it was before the pandemic. Then something started seeping into Wuhan, and we thought, “Maybe this will end in the book. We didn’t know it was going to become a global pandemic.
WebMD: What’s fascinating is that COVID-19 isn’t the primary focus of your book.
Kang: Exactly. Our book doesn’t just focus on COVID-19. It’s about the interactions between humans and infectious diseases and the fun / interesting history of science behind it. We cover mad cow disease, measles and all the quackery that surrounds the spread of disease, from mercury and bloodletting to hydroxychloroquine.
WebMD: What do you want people to know about the COVID-19 pandemic and bats?
Kang: Don’t hate bats. I think it’s still one of those really classic beliefs that all of these zoonotic spillover events are coming from bats and that these animal species are terrible. This blame game is not useful. These animals have the right to be here. It’s not necessarily their fault that they have coronaviruses swarming inside them. Bats have lived with these really unusual and weird viruses for a long time, but it doesn’t kill them. In fact, we have a lot to learn from them.
WebMD: What worries you about what’s going on from an infectious disease perspective?
Kang: Once COVID-19 takes hold and perhaps becomes an endemic virus just like the flu, there could be another. The vast majority of new infections (over 60%) are zoonotic, which means they come from animal sources. These overflows try to happen all the time. We are always faced with the possibility of other viruses, and while most cannot pass from person to person or reproduce in humans, this one in a million has come forward, and that’s probably what COVID-19 was.
WebMD: How to prepare for the next one?
Kang: This is a huge red flag for different countries to be better prepared. COVID-19 was bad, but it could have been worse. So what we need to do is get the vaccines out quickly – we have great technology – and we should be communicating better with other countries sooner than we have this time around.
WebMD: Should this book be required reading?
Kang: That would be great. In one of our reviews, a writer wrote that this book would be well placed in a library. I would love to see it in classrooms and college programs that deal with the human relationship with infectious diseases. Sometimes the science can be dry and hard to understand. We have tried to make our book something readable, somewhat entertaining, and important.