Friday, April 22, 2005

A world out of balance

You're right, Judy. Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains is one of those books that is both exhilarating and depressing. Exhilarating to realize that there are people such as Dr. Paul Farmer who so selflessly put their heart and science to the service of the poorest of the poor; depressing to think how self-centered is my own life by comparison.

Last Sunday's NYTimes had a long story about the doctors and health workers from the World Health Organization, The United States Centers for Disease Control, and Doctor's Without Borders risking their lives daily to contain an outbreak of the deadly Marburg virus in Angola. We owe them more than many people realize.

For stories of astonishing bravery by these medical heroes, read Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. The book is now a decade old, but the struggle on the ground is the same.

Read about Dr. Joe McCormick, for example, formerly of the CDC, who stayed on the job in N'zara, Sudan, trying to identify and stifle a viral outbreak even though he thought he had been infected by a deadly virus with an incubation time of five to seven days. "I just didn't see the point of going to some hospital and getting everybody in a stew, sitting and waiting to get sick, and thinking all the while about the work I should have been doing in N'zara," he told Garrett.

McCormick's story could be multiplied a thousandfold. The doctors, nurses and scientists who fight on the front lines of disease control know that microbes respect no political boundaries, and that, in an age of mass air travel, a pathogen can jump from the Sudan or Angola to Boston in a matter of hours.