Viruses are fascinating if generally nasty little creatures. Very primitive in many respects they are highly sophisticated infiltrators that have existed probably as long as life on Earth. Viruses live on the edge of the life/non-life barrier and cannot prosper without a host to infect in order to reproduce. For centuries their existence was unknown or unproven despite a host of circumstantial evidence. Only comparatively recently has the reality of these enigmatic creatures been confirmed, catalogued and gradually understood.
Such is the scope of this fascinating little volume. Looking first at the nature of the beast, their diversity, structure and evolution the author discusses how the human immune system in particular has developed and adapted over time to the viral threat. The disturbing subject of emerging viruses is covered next including the spread of West Nile virus, SARS and, of course HIV. Leading naturally to the subject of Epidemics and Pandemics the author relates the fight against Measles, Smallpox and Flu. After a chapter on persistent viruses such as Herpes (400 million years old it seems!) and HIV (again) the author moves onto discuss the growing number of viruses know to or suspected of producing tumours. Finally, the author turns to the ongoing fight against viruses – both the successes (smallpox, polio and rabies) and relative failure (AIDS) and debates the arguments for and against vaccination. In the final chapter she discusses the history of viruses in human populations and speculates on the future of the seemingly everlasting war against them.
This is an interesting little book aimed at the general reader. I did find I needed to concentrate a bit more than usual during the discussion of the ins and outs of viral DNA and exactly how viruses operate but I’ve been out of the world of biology for quite some time. It was, in effect, a good refresher course for me! The sections on the emergent problem where very good if more than a little disturbing. With humans moving into areas little explored until now due to population pressures it’s inevitable that we will encounter diseases for which we have little or no immunity. With global communications and international transport a new virus could potentially spread across the world before the first person exhibits symptoms. This is seriously scary stuff! Whilst most definitely an introduction into the subject this book does have a handy glossary of technical terms and a short bibliography. It is a subject I’m quite interested in and will be following up some of the subjects highlighted above in future reading. Recommended.