Beth Skwarecki
Adams Media
2016 | 241pp | £10.68
ISBN 9781440596278

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The 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa killed 11,000 people. With a fatality rate of 70% and high levels of transmission, it was one of the most terrifying outbreaks of our time.

But imagine a similar outbreak hundreds of years ago, when there were no doctors carrying out simple blood tests to diagnose patients, no media to spread the word about the best ways of avoiding disease, no researchers developing cures and no World Health Organization or Médecins Sans Frontières on hand to help the victims.

In Outbreak! Beth Skwarecki takes us on a journey from the first reports of malaria around 10,000BC, all the way to Ebola in 2014. Her ‘50 tales of epidemics that terrorized the world’ range from smallpox in Japan, to the bubonic plague in San Francisco, to syphilis in France.

Well-researched and packed with facts about causes, fatality rates and how the epidemics spread, this book is an interesting yet terrifying account of the diseases that have devastated our planet time and time again. Skwarecki describes the history and politics of the countries involved, the relative threats to society today, and the weird and wacky treatments used by doctors at the time.

My one criticism of the book is its length. Fifty outbreaks in 240 pages doesn’t leave much space to discuss each disease, and the science behind some of these is so interesting that I wish the author could have gone into more detail. Twice as many pages or half as many outbreaks and this could have been a really interesting book.

As it stands, however, Skwarecki still manages to cover the basics of each epidemic, and has filled the book with anecdotes that will inform, intrigue and at times horrify any reader.