Review: The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very thorough account of the 1918 pandemic, and the state of medicine in the US at the time. While it's clear from the book that medicine in America made numerous advances after the turn of the twentieth century, the nation, and indeed the world, were still wholly unprepared to deal with the influenza pandemic.

The first World War has often been blamed for the lack of focus on (and active suppression of information about) the pandemic by the US federal government and Barry's book goes into some detail on this topic. But the AIDS pandemic and the current pandemic of coronavirus have unfortunately made clear that political and public health interests are too easily at odds, war or no war.

The discussion at the end of the book about preparation for future pandemics (written pre-COVID) is not very hopeful and makes clear that medicine still has no "silver bullet" approaches to viral pandemics. Barry writes about "NPI" or non-pharmaceutical interventions being the best tools at hand when pandemics strike - including social distancing (yes, he uses that term).

Reading this book in 2020 during the COVID pandemic is informative and useful, especially the sections on how the immune system fights disease. I agree with other reviewers that better editing would have led to a better book - phrases, sentences, topics are repeated from one place to another giving the reader a sense of "deja vu" more often than I think the author would prefer. Even so, this is a book well worth your time.

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