29 Nov. 2021 – Talking about dreaded illnesses may not be your idea of fun holiday conversations, but Lydia Kang, managing director, co-author of Patient Zero: A Curious History of the World’s Worst Diseases, think it should be.
After all, we are in the middle of a pandemic, and this is not the first time we’re facing a pathogen. We sat down with Kang, a primary care physician in Omaha, NE, to find out what inspired her to write this book, which includes the compelling human stories behind such outbreaks. smallpox, builepes, polio, HIV and COVID-19, and why it is a must-read.
WebMD: It must have been surreal to write a book about scary diseases during a pandemic.
Kang: When my co-author, Nate Pedersen, and I decided to write the book, it was pre-pandemic. Then something started to trickle into Wuhan, and we thought, “Maybe it’s going to end up in the book.” We had no idea it was going to be a global pandemic.
WebMD: What’s fascinating is that COVID-19 is not the main focus of your book.
Kang: Exactly. Our book is not just focused on COVID-19. It’s about the interactions between humans and infectious diseases and the fun / interesting history of the science behind them. We cover mad cow disease, measles, and all the quackery surrounding the spread of a disease, from mercury and blood admission to hydroxychloroquine.
WebMD: What do you want people to know about the COVID-19 pandemic and bats?
Kang: Do not hate bats. I think it’s again one of those really classic beliefs that all these zoonotic overflow events come from bats and that these animal species are terrible. That blame game is not useful. These animals have the right to be here. It’s not necessarily their fault they owe coronavirus crawling inside them. Bats have been living with these really unusual, strange viruses for a long time, but it does not kill them. We actually have a lot to learn from them.
WebMD: What makes you worry about what comes down on the pike, infectious-disease-wise?
Kang: Once COVID-19 goes down and maybe just like flu becomes an endemic virus, there could be another one. The vast majority of new infections (over 60%) are zoonotic, meaning they come from animal sources. Those floods are constantly trying to happen. We are always barred from the possibility of other viruses, and although most cannot pass from person to person or repeat in humans, that one out of a million showed up, and that’s probably what COVID-19 was.
WebMD: How can we be prepared for the next one?
Kang: This is a big wake-up call for different countries to be more prepared. COVID-19 was bad, but it could have been worse. So what we need to do is express vaccines quickly – we have excellent technology – and we need to communicate better with other countries sooner than we did this time.
WebMD: Should this book be a required read?
Kang: That would be great. In one of our reviews, an author wrote that this book would be well placed in a library. I would love to see it in classrooms and college curricula that cover the human relationship with infectious diseases. Sometimes science can be dry and difficult to understand. We tried to make our book something readable, somewhat entertaining and important.