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Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease Hardcover – May 4, 2004

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1ST edition (May 4, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743236858
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743236850
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #121,853 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Anthrax, smallpox, West Nile virus, mad cow disease… and now Black Death? The 21st century’s list of new and returning biological scourges is enough to make anyone go a little Howard Hughes. But knowledge is the best defense, and Wendy Orent’s Plague is full of facts and educated speculations about the "world's most dangerous disease." Although always caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, plague can manifest in many ways, from a relatively benign and uncontagious infection to a potent airborne form that spreads like wildfire and kills without fail. Orent provides a gripping history of plague outbreaks around the world, such as the notorious Black Death of medieval Europe, and explains why reservoirs in rodent populations mean we will never eradicate the disease. Then, in chapters echoing recent books about smallpox and anthrax, Orent investigates the 20th century Soviet bioweapons program that focused on plague. Growing it, perfecting it, stockpiling it to use in wartime. Her insider information comes from Igor Domaradskij, a leading scientist in Soviet biological weapon development and vaccine production. In her interviews with Domaradskij, Orent allows him to show how easy it is for well-meaning scientists to shift back and forth between humanitarian and military work. Plague reveals the inner workings of a terrifying research effort, the products of which may or may not have been destroyed in 1992, when Boris Yeltsin ordered Soviet bioweapon labs shut down. Without resorting to alarmism, Orent cautions the world that plague is still out there, in nature and in laboratories, waiting for a chance to spread again. --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

As journalist Orent shows, what is called the plague—a killer of millions throughout the centuries—is several different diseases, some spread by animals, others by humans. Luckily, the Black Death, as the plague was called in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, "never became a permanent human specialist, like smallpox," in part, she surmises, because it was too virulent to survive for long. But when Orent moves on to the present and future of the plague, she's treading on uncertain ground. With the help of a former Soviet bioweapons scientist, Igor Domaradskij, whose memoirs she's edited, she throws the spotlight on the Soviet development of strains of the plague. The frightening thing, she notes, is that some of these strains can no longer be accounted for. Whether or not that is something that should be feared is unclear: American experts she quotes argue that these viruses are no longer major threats to create an epidemic. But she contends that while not as deadly as anthrax, the strains of the plague created in the former Soviet Union—or other strains of the disease that might be antibiotic resistant—are indeed something to worry about. Not so long ago, a book like this might have seemed like fear mongering. In the post–September 11 world, a plague outbreak may still be unlikely, but many readers will find this a subject deserving further investigation.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Alan A. Fisher on July 19, 2004
Format: Hardcover
One of the most difficult and important talents for a scientist is to communicate difficult material in an understandable way. Dr. Orent has an astounding ability to communicate complex material coherently enough for a nonspecialist to understand. She has made sense of an enormous amount of plague history: why did specific plague eruptions throughout history emerge? Why did some eruptions self destruct while others kept going for many years? Why did some plague eruptions seem to require transmission through rats and rat fleas while others transmitted directly from human to human? Why do researchers in some countries consider plague virtually always fatal while researchers in some other countries consider it primarily a disease of rodents with little potential for human infection?
Dr. Orent traveled as far as Russia to meet with leading plague researchers (and biological terrorists) in the process of preparing this book.
I had the pleasure of discussing plague with Dr. Orent a couple of years ago when she was in Maryland doing research for the work. At the time I was stuck in the mind set from my days in college, when we learned that plague died down in Europe when the brown rats (essentially imune to plague) forced out the black rats (vulnerable to plague). While Dr. Orent told me that some forms of plague transmitted directly from human to human, the horror of the situation did not come through until I read her very convincing book.
I strongly recommend this book, one of the finest nonfiction books I have read in many years. As an experienced author, it takes a lot for an author to impress me with writing ability. Based on this book, Dr. Orent is one of the finest pure writers I have encountered in many years -- as well as an excellent scientist.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By dew2229 on July 12, 2013
Format: Paperback
I recently finished Plague by Dr. Orent, and I was rather impressed with the in depth analysis surrounding the disease and the social circumstances under which it spread. Highly recommended!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By doc peterson VINE VOICE on November 8, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Wendy Orent begins _Plague_ by describing her journey to a former Soviety bio-weapons lab outside Moscow, where ultra-virulent strains of bubonic plague were (and, apparently, in violation of international law, are) manufactured and stored before discussing the history of the disease and its impact on humankind and its historical role. Organizationally, this doesn't work very well. I also was frustrated by the lack of clarity she provided differentiating between the pneumonic and bubonic forms of the disease and the scientific explanations of how the same bacteria can have two different vectors.

In her historical examination of the bubonic plague, she does a solid job of detailing "Justinain's Plague" in 542 and the "Great Mortality" of 1348 and subsequent significant outbreaks in 1665 and 1891, although there are several other books on the topic that do so as well (The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (P.S.), Plagues and Peoples). What Orent also attempts to do is explore the vectors of the plague and connect the relative virulence of the disease to its animal hosts. This is not explained very well, nor is the microbiological processes that are so crucial to understanding this phenomenoea.

There are a number of books on the topic of plague; this is not one of the stronger ones. Orent's discussion of bio-weapons is good, but the lack of clarity in explaining the science behind the organism and its virulence makes it a lack-luster book on the disease.
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4 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on November 10, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Plague is the world's most dangerous bacterial disease, a frightening bioterrorist threat to the world, and yet largely misunderstood by the general public: enter Wendy Orent's Plague: The Mysterious Past And Terrifying Future Of The World's Most Dangerous Disease, which uses the science journalist's background to easily explain the history and function of the plague germ to lay audiences. From the labs of the former Soviet Union where Russian scientists worked on engineering strains of plague to be vaccine-resistant to other threats of plague's potential as a bioweapon, Plague is a hard-hitting discussion with social and political ramifications for international public health decisions.
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