And what about the bigger picture? Since the late 1990s, for example, BSE and West Nile encephalitis have claimed no more than 600 European and American lives in total. In contrast, cerebral malaria (a condition that can be reversed with drugs that cost a dollar or two per patient) has silently killed several million African children, many of whom never got close to medical help. Now there's a killer disease.
A Washington postal worker who survived anthrax and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (he suspects the anthrax mailings were a secret government experiment) is the book's segue into bioterrorism. A 3-year-old whose juicy bite of cantaloupe at a Milwaukee salad bar led to bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and death introduces E. coli 0157. In these and other poignant stories the authors describe the genetic, immunologic and vaccine development research that reveals the wondrous toolbox of modern microbiology. On the political side, arguments for better public health communication and interagency linkages (during the anthrax letter crisis, the FBI, CIA, EPA, FEMA and CDC shared turf rather clumsily) come through loud and clear, as does the case for stronger oversight of our domestic food supply.
In the United States alone, as Levy and Fischetti point out, food-borne germs cause 76 million illnesses and 325,000 hospitalizations a year. Fortunately, with 5,000-plus annual fatalities, the odds of death are low. That's not to downplay the casualties, economic costs or future threats of food-borne infection, however. In recent years, the global flow of fruits, vegetables and other exotic treats has brought some unhappy surprises: parasite-laden raspberries, cholera-carrying crabs, goat cheese laced with dangerous bacteria.