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Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to the Avian Flu

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The average individual is far more likely to die in a car accident than from a communicable disease…yet we are still much more fearful of the epidemic. Even at our most level-headed, the thought of an epidemic can inspire terror. As Philip Alcabes persuasively argues in Dread, our anxieties about epidemics are created not so much by the germ or microbe in question—or the a The average individual is far more likely to die in a car accident than from a communicable disease…yet we are still much more fearful of the epidemic. Even at our most level-headed, the thought of an epidemic can inspire terror. As Philip Alcabes persuasively argues in Dread, our anxieties about epidemics are created not so much by the germ or microbe in question—or the actual risks of contagion—but by the unknown, the undesirable, and the misunderstood.Alcabes examines epidemics through history to show how they reflect the particular social and cultural anxieties of their times. From Typhoid Mary to bioterrorism, as new outbreaks are unleashed or imagined, new fears surface, new enemies are born, and new behaviors emerge. Dread dissects the fascinating story of the imagined epidemic: the one that we think is happening, or might happen; the one that disguises moral judgments and political agendas, the one that ultimately expresses our deepest fears.


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The average individual is far more likely to die in a car accident than from a communicable disease…yet we are still much more fearful of the epidemic. Even at our most level-headed, the thought of an epidemic can inspire terror. As Philip Alcabes persuasively argues in Dread, our anxieties about epidemics are created not so much by the germ or microbe in question—or the a The average individual is far more likely to die in a car accident than from a communicable disease…yet we are still much more fearful of the epidemic. Even at our most level-headed, the thought of an epidemic can inspire terror. As Philip Alcabes persuasively argues in Dread, our anxieties about epidemics are created not so much by the germ or microbe in question—or the actual risks of contagion—but by the unknown, the undesirable, and the misunderstood.Alcabes examines epidemics through history to show how they reflect the particular social and cultural anxieties of their times. From Typhoid Mary to bioterrorism, as new outbreaks are unleashed or imagined, new fears surface, new enemies are born, and new behaviors emerge. Dread dissects the fascinating story of the imagined epidemic: the one that we think is happening, or might happen; the one that disguises moral judgments and political agendas, the one that ultimately expresses our deepest fears.

30 review for Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to the Avian Flu

  1. 5 out of 5

    Neil Powell

    An interesting read, if somewhat spoilt by some fairly boring sections and a little too much liberal thinking (and I think of myself as fairly liberal) The theory that most epidemics are actually not about disease and link into other prejudices such as racism, homophobia and poverty seem highly accurate. Making links to diseases based on certain stereotyping has been the norm since ancient times. Nowadays, this has moved away from racial groups towards other minorities (homosexuals and HIV), and An interesting read, if somewhat spoilt by some fairly boring sections and a little too much liberal thinking (and I think of myself as fairly liberal) The theory that most epidemics are actually not about disease and link into other prejudices such as racism, homophobia and poverty seem highly accurate. Making links to diseases based on certain stereotyping has been the norm since ancient times. Nowadays, this has moved away from racial groups towards other minorities (homosexuals and HIV), and even more recently to the obese and autistic; conditions described as epidemics, but aren't linked to a virus or bacteria, and therefore shouldn't be treated as such. His theories around how the media and government distort scientific theory to meet their own needs have some merit, but tend to get drowned out a little by his very obvious liberal bias

  2. 5 out of 5

    Erin

    I have comprehensive exams for my MPH - Biosecurity/Disaster Preparedness degree in two weeks, and I picked this book up as a potential source. It starts out strong, and Alcabes makes some good points about how disease research is funded and the history of epidemics; however, the book goes off the rails while talking about AIDS and emerging infections. The book descends in to accusations of racism and ignores the genetic factors in disease susceptibility, some of which are associated with differ I have comprehensive exams for my MPH - Biosecurity/Disaster Preparedness degree in two weeks, and I picked this book up as a potential source. It starts out strong, and Alcabes makes some good points about how disease research is funded and the history of epidemics; however, the book goes off the rails while talking about AIDS and emerging infections. The book descends in to accusations of racism and ignores the genetic factors in disease susceptibility, some of which are associated with different races. Also, Alcabes denies any concerns about the globalization of everything and how this allows for the increased spread of emerging infections. I planned on bringing this book with me to use in my case presentation, but the second half of the book negates any points in the first half.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Marc

    The book was OK and I mostly liked it. However, I was quite repetitive and it seemed to drag at times. Much better editing of Ch2 and most of Ch3 could have reduced the volume to about half as much text. It just went on and on. Overall, I'd give it 2.5 but I couldn't quite go to 3 stars. I thought the analysis at the end of Ch3 (Miasma and the Rise of Science) was perhaps where the began to get interesting and the Ch4 on Science was insightful in places. p. 96 "A germ theory would tend to undermine The book was OK and I mostly liked it. However, I was quite repetitive and it seemed to drag at times. Much better editing of Ch2 and most of Ch3 could have reduced the volume to about half as much text. It just went on and on. Overall, I'd give it 2.5 but I couldn't quite go to 3 stars. I thought the analysis at the end of Ch3 (Miasma and the Rise of Science) was perhaps where the began to get interesting and the Ch4 on Science was insightful in places. p. 96 "A germ theory would tend to undermine the physicians' craft, since doctors' work was based on knowledge of the patient and attention to observable signs, not microscopic creatures." The Epilogue, "The Risk-Free Life" was the best part of the book. p. 215 "To wish to escape peril entirely is to yearn for the unattainable."

  4. 4 out of 5

    Enrico Mascarpone

    If ever there was a time that a book like this might have found a wide audience it is now. Social media abounds with discussions and opinion on the prioritisation of coronavirus over everything else: personal liberty, jobs, popular culture, young peoples' education, etc. In month the 12 of the pandemic and counting, with the coronavirus exposing myriad points of cleavage in stable institutions, social practices and established norms worldwide. A popular but rigorous exploration of historical and If ever there was a time that a book like this might have found a wide audience it is now. Social media abounds with discussions and opinion on the prioritisation of coronavirus over everything else: personal liberty, jobs, popular culture, young peoples' education, etc. In month the 12 of the pandemic and counting, with the coronavirus exposing myriad points of cleavage in stable institutions, social practices and established norms worldwide. A popular but rigorous exploration of historical and contemporary epidemics would have offered interest beyond our daily diet of infographics on case numbers and knee-jerk responses from entrenched positions and interest. Contextual historical accounts and analysis might draw out similarities and differences to illuminate our experience of increasing social fragmentation, disharmony and bloody confrontation. This book, however, falls short of that mission. It summarises nicely some of the famous disease epidemics: plague, cholera and, to a degree, HIV/AIDS but often veers off course into ill-informed sniping at contemporary preoccupations with risk. The author is concerned that our risk-avoidance culture is wholly self-serving to those in authority and academia who use this narrative to exert more control on us, or justify their next grant application. Alcabes goes off-piste to examine issues like why we are collectively getting fatter (the 'imagined' obesity epidemic) and the threat from Avian flus (he suggests we have little to fear from them, the book was written in 2009). On reflection, we can now legitimately question what has been then utility of spending large amounts of money on flu preparedness exercises (which Alcabes rubbishes) which have proved manifestly useless in this epidemic, but not that these pandemic preparedness exercises were ill-conceived in the first place, as the author concludes. China, South Korea, Taiwan and hosts of other east-Asian countries seem to have learned the lessons on how societies should deal with contemporary epidemics and insulated their populations (and economies and social lives) against the worse effects, while the US, Britain and other economies have proved hopelessly incompetent in the face of this phenomenon. Alcabes seems to have a distrust of risk-mongers worrying about things like obesity (what's the big problem, buy bigger clothes and get some treatment for your diabetes!) while being uncritical of disease-mongering pharmaceutical companies who operate in the context of our capitalist economies and benefit from much of this sickness and risk and our sticking plaster solutions to the problem. His knowledge of his subject is often sketchy, for example, he seems unaware that Camus' The Plague, was an allegory of fascism rather than a tale of resilience in a contemporary disease outbreak. As a family doctor reading his thoughts on an apparently imagined obesity epidemic in children and young people is just embarrassing, he clearly doesn't understand his brief and should have to face up to teenagers with type 2 diabetes, facing a bleak future of complications and shortened life. This was but one example I could have highlighted among many. So although a lot of work has gone into this and there are some vaguely interesting accounts into contemporary over-valued dread of infections at the expense of other tangible and pressing social problems. This is not the book to read, in my opinion, to get a balancing account of the important social and cultural aspects of pandemic disease. I am sure there will be better things coming along in the next few years given our collective experience of recent events.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Why do some diseases get classified as "epidemics" while others (often more dangerous or frequent) don't? Alcabes deals with the sociological side of medicine, in which a three step process of occurrence, social reaction and narrative formation shape the way people deal with outbreaks from syphilis to black plague to anthrax. As usual, when something is of sufficient threat for authorities to take action, it is usually to restrict people in ways that cause them to be more at risk--fatalistically Why do some diseases get classified as "epidemics" while others (often more dangerous or frequent) don't? Alcabes deals with the sociological side of medicine, in which a three step process of occurrence, social reaction and narrative formation shape the way people deal with outbreaks from syphilis to black plague to anthrax. As usual, when something is of sufficient threat for authorities to take action, it is usually to restrict people in ways that cause them to be more at risk--fatalistically taking chances, blaming the wrong people or actions, and often exploding towards scapegoats, at the very least rousting some poor people and burning down the nearest shetl.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Lara Amber

    Dread is definitely a thought provoking read. While I didn't agree with all of his conclusions, I could see his viewpoint. It's an interesting discussion of: the history of how we view epidemic diseases; how we couch modern concerns in the terms of communicable diseases, even when not a disease (obesity, autism); how communicable diseases have changed our views of governmental powers; the search for a single "cause"; and the desire to predict future outbreaks. Dread is definitely a thought provoking read. While I didn't agree with all of his conclusions, I could see his viewpoint. It's an interesting discussion of: the history of how we view epidemic diseases; how we couch modern concerns in the terms of communicable diseases, even when not a disease (obesity, autism); how communicable diseases have changed our views of governmental powers; the search for a single "cause"; and the desire to predict future outbreaks.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Trisher

    After watching the author on the Daily Show (a long while back), I had a certain expectation of what the book would be like. It really didn't turn out to be what I had expected and that's not really a fault. The author makes some very interesting points about power and race and ideology as they relate to society's perception (and creation) of epidemics. After watching the author on the Daily Show (a long while back), I had a certain expectation of what the book would be like. It really didn't turn out to be what I had expected and that's not really a fault. The author makes some very interesting points about power and race and ideology as they relate to society's perception (and creation) of epidemics.

  8. 5 out of 5

    David

    This is an excellent primer for the subject of the history of disease, medical science, and the popular reactions to epidemics and pandemics. If you are well acquainted with the history it may read as redundant but for those new to the topic it is highly recommended. Accessible, intelligent, adroit, enlightening, and entertaining. Highly Recommended.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Nicole

    I'm unhappy that I ended up deleting my review of this book due to a duplication on my shelf - I was trying to delete the duplicate and they both disappeared. I remember this as an interesting book, though. I'm unhappy that I ended up deleting my review of this book due to a duplication on my shelf - I was trying to delete the duplicate and they both disappeared. I remember this as an interesting book, though.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Marcie

    My grandma got this for me for graduation, after hearing the speaker discuss how the role of epidemics in world history has been under-recognized and/or down-played. As a firm believer that everything has to do with health and health has to do with everything, I'm excited to read it. My grandma got this for me for graduation, after hearing the speaker discuss how the role of epidemics in world history has been under-recognized and/or down-played. As a firm believer that everything has to do with health and health has to do with everything, I'm excited to read it.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

    Because I love anything that challenges the reader to think differently about the dominant narratives of our society, this gets five stars. And, according to the author, epidemic is primarily a narrative we tell ourselves, with the usual features of biases and "hidden" goals. Highly recommend. Because I love anything that challenges the reader to think differently about the dominant narratives of our society, this gets five stars. And, according to the author, epidemic is primarily a narrative we tell ourselves, with the usual features of biases and "hidden" goals. Highly recommend.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Richard Williams

    read last chapter first. author has a difficult thesis, i'm not sure he got his point across to me firmly enough. in places i felt he had a hidden agenda that i could only see dimly, trying to understand it kept me reading. read last chapter first. author has a difficult thesis, i'm not sure he got his point across to me firmly enough. in places i felt he had a hidden agenda that i could only see dimly, trying to understand it kept me reading.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Pancha

    A look at how classicism, racism,and sexism have affected and been effected by emerging germ theories. Looks at views of disease from the antiquity (plague, cholera, malaria) to the present (HIV, bird flu).

  14. 4 out of 5

    James Blatter

    Fascinating story of how disease has transformed society and civilization. Well written and paced never drags as some similar non-fiction has. Truely enjoyable history

  15. 4 out of 5

    Alannah

    Interesting depiction of public health hysteria throughout the ages, but often found his arguements to lack substance/evidence.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany

    Dreadfully boring.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Julia

    Meh

  18. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

    Didn't even finish it. And I love me some disease non fiction ;) Didn't even finish it. And I love me some disease non fiction ;)

  19. 5 out of 5

    smti

  20. 5 out of 5

    Angel

  21. 4 out of 5

    C

  22. 5 out of 5

    Bob Peterson

  23. 4 out of 5

    Christine

  24. 5 out of 5

    Cody Farthing

  25. 5 out of 5

    Theresa Macphail

  26. 5 out of 5

    Emily

  27. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sakura

  29. 5 out of 5

    Susan Keady

  30. 5 out of 5

    Leah Lucci

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