A Natural History
Of Viruses

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In the late 20th and very early 21st centuries, when full-on warfare has become rarer and remoter for Westerners, disease is now the area where we experience the feelings of emotional intensity associated with war, the crushing communal defeat, sudden personal loss, plodding hardship and hysterical relief at victory. Man has smallpox on the run; polio emerges. Polio is almost beaten; HIV begins its offensive. A vaccine against HIV may be within reach; what next? (The current foot-and-mouth epidemic is a reminder that viruses which afflict people are not the only enemy.)

The story goes back to our ancient hominid ancestors, sitting in the darkness around a fire, afraid of the predators out there in the night. A million years later, we have killed or corralled all the big beasts which could hurt us, but the predators are still our there. We have shrunk the jungles, and think we have mastered all wild things, but those shrunken forests conceal the carriers of viruses which could wreak terrible destruction. There is a theory that some viruses are not just harmless to their hosts, but may even be beneficial to them because they cause deadly disease in their enemies --- such as Man. We still do not know the animal or insect which carries the Ebola virus, and one of the reasons could be that the virus has killed the few who have disturbed the animal's habitat. The closer Man gets to the last wild strongholds, the closer he may be getting to the ultimate predator. Imagine a virus with the effect and latency period of HIV which could be spread by a sneeze.

--- Reviewed by James Meek
©2001, The London Review of Books

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