My cameo, with some thoughts on contagions, on NatGeo MARS

National Geographic’s part-docu part-sci fi TV series “MARS” featured a contagion on a Martian colony in its fourth episode of season two–and interviews with a few experts on outbreaks, including Pardis Sabeti, Antonia Juhasz, Elon Musk, Neil Degrasse-Tyson, and me. Here’s a link to the show and a screen grab. Enjoy!

Talking Zika on CNN with Fareed Zakaria

Zika virus infection has been linked to a birth defect called microcephaly

Top officials such as NIAID’s Anthony Fauci have warned that the mosquito-borne Zika virus spreading in Latin America is a “pandemic in progress.” I think he’s right, although it may not be the kind of pandemic that movies like Contagion bring to mind. Rather than rising death rates, this pandemic could cause falling birth rates. I talked about why that is with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, for his show “GPS.” Stay tuned for a link to the segment!

Talking malaria on Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera published a fascinating in-depth story on India’s malaria epidemic–and its chronic underreporting–and invited a few people to talk about the story with one of the reporters, Ankita Rao, on its show “The Stream.” I Skyped in. Video of the show is below, as is the Twitter conversation that followed.

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Bill Gates reviews “The Fever”

Screenshot 2015-01-05 08.54.24My book, The Fever, is not uncritical toward the role the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has played in shaping global priorities around malaria. They’re big, they’re aggressive, and as a private entity they’re fundamentally non-democratic. I have a problem with all that, and I’ve written about why in my book and in articles.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see that Mr. Gates recommended my book in his blog GatesNotes, and also picked it as the first of just 4 “good disease books” he’s read in recent years.

If you want to read just one book about malaria, The Fever is probably the best choice. Author Sonia Shah doesn’t overwhelm you with data and analytics, but she does cover the whole history of the disease, which—as the title suggests—goes back further than you might think. The book was published in 2010, so it’s not totally up to date (most notably, we’ve made progress with rolling out bed nets since then). But it’s a great overview of malaria, its impact, and the solutions to it. -Bill Gates

“The Fever” is in extremely good company on Gates’ list. The other 3 “good disease books” are by Bill Foege and D.A. Henderson, leaders of the smallpox eradication campaign, and one of my favorite authors, the physician-anthropologist and founder of Partners in Health Paul Farmer.

Tina Rosenberg’s patronizing op-ed

There’s a lot of commentary about poverty, development, and medicine out there that is low quality, patronizing, and off-the-mark. I generally try to avoid it and not spend too much time worrying about it. But this New York Times op-ed by Tina Rosenberg just really bugged me.

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She starts by noting that “we” often think of depression as a “First-World problem.”

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Do “we” really? I don’t.

Then she says that depression is actually “just as widespread” in poor countries, “if not more so.”

Again–really? What’s the evidence for this claim? (Clue: “If not more so” is a giveaway–there is no evidence.)

Then, instead of backing up this wishy-washy claim that there may be more depression in poor countries compared to rich ones, she says that this could be true because in poor countries, there is “a good deal more to be depressed about.”

Screenshot 2014-12-08 12.53.59Seriously? This is, of course, a variation of the colonialist fantasy that all of “us” are enlightened and happy and all of “them” are miserable savages. It’s patently untrue. And it also implies that  depression stems from “things to be depressed about,” which it doesn’t. There are people who have everything and suffer depression, and those who have little who don’t.  Basically, she’s saying that all people in all poor countries should  be more depressed, because their lives are more depressing to the likes of her.

Pointing out that mental health care should be part of basic health care, she then points out the dearth of psychiatrists in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

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That is indeed hard to believe, if you think that Western allopathic medicine is the only kind of medicine there is. But just because these societies do not practice Western-style psychiatry does not in any way mean that her implication–they have no traditional or alternative medical traditions of their own that address mental health–is true. Many societies may even (gasp!) deal with mental health problems better than Western psychiatry does. I don’t know. Tina Rosenberg doesn’t say. She just relies on the colonialist trope instead: “we” have all the best resources and those poor miserable savages have nothing. Recall, too that psychiatry is a relatively new in discipline and one with a highly checkered past. Just a few decades ago, practices that we would today consider barbaric were run-of-the-mill psychiatry.

Plenary address at ABRCMS 2014, San Antonio, TX

What an amazing crowd at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students! I gave a plenary about how poverty and deforestation can lead to emerging diseases like Ebola and the politics and science of the troublesome endemic diseases they can become, such as malaria. The audience, of several thousand, was wonderfully receptive and enthusiastic. I wish I’d had more time to take questions afterward! Here’s some Twitter feedback from the crowd.

Thanks to all for a lovely experience.

Talking Epidemics at New York Academy of Medicine

Wonderful event at New York Academy of Medicine last night, with Boston University’s Jonathan Simon, human rights activist and pediatrician Dr Annie Sparrow, conservation medicine expert Dr Jonathan Epstein and’s humanitarian data expert Pablo Maygrundter. About a hundred folks came out for a presentation and discussion of “Mapping Cholera.” Here’s video ICMYI, and some highlights from Twitter too. Thank you to New York Academy of Medicine’s Lisa O’Sullivan and Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for organizing.

“Mapping Cholera” in Scientific American and at the New York Academy of Medicine

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A few years ago, in connection with research for my new book (Cholera’s Child: Tracking the Next Pandemic), I encountered a collection of physicians’ reports from an 1832 cholera epidemic in New York City. Along with their descriptions of the mysterious disease and outrage at the mayor and city council, who refused to alert the public about the arrival of cholera, the physicians had included in these reports detailed tables, listing every case of cholera that occurred in the city, along with victims’ addresses.

One of the many aspects of the 19th century cholera epidemic in New York City that interested me was its striking similarity to the ongoing cholera epidemic in Haiti. The disease had been introduced via novel means (in the case of New York, the newly opened Erie Canal; in Haiti, the arrival of UN peacekeepers from Nepal). New Yorkers, like Haitians, had no immunity to the disease. The islands they lived on had been deforested and were subject to flooding, and their populations lived in crowded, unsanitary conditions. The result: massive numbers of cases and deaths, along with the political instability that follows.

I wasn’t sure what could be done with these old New York City addresses. The city’s changed tremendously since then, and most were outdated. But they were so detailed, and they pre-dated John Snow’s famous cholera map of 1854 by a couple decades. Plus, I knew there was a similar data-set available in Haiti. That summer, I’d interviewed Oliver Schulz in Port-au-Prince, where he directed Medecins Sans Frontieres’ cholera treatment centers. He had told me the organization had collected GPS data on all the cases they’d been treating in the country since the beginning of the epidemic in 2010.

So I spent a few weeks entering the physicians’ information into a spreadsheet. When I found out that the New York Public Library had recently geocoded historical maps of New York City, I realized that it might be possible that  the two epidemics could be plotted on side-by-side maps.

The wonderful Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting stepped in with the funding and expertise to do just that. This October, we launch “Mapping Cholera: A Tale of Two Cities,” an interactive story-map of the two epidemics, on Scientific American magazine’s website. The story-map will be made freely available and easily embeddable on October 11, the fourth anniversary of the cholera epidemic in Haiti.

On November 4, 2014, the New York Academy of Medicine is hosting a special event around “Mapping Cholera.” There’ll be a panel discussion with me, Dr. Jonathan Epstein of EcoHealth Alliance, the Pulitzer Center, and Medecins Sans Frontieres, about the story-maps; the past, present, and future of cholera epidemics; and their connection to ongoing epidemics of new disease around the world such as Ebola in West Africa. A light reception follows. That event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Click here for more info.


TEDMED talk on the origins of new diseases

This September I gave the opening talk at this year’s TEDMED conference, which was held simultaneously in Washington, DC and San Francisco, CA. It was an intense and exciting experience. (One highlight for me was meeting the comedian Tig Notaro–we shared a table at a book signing.) The talk previewed ideas in my new book, Cholera’s Child: Tracking the Next Pandemic.

Some tweeted highlights below.




Thanks tweeps!

Streaming on Netflix

Well I never. My talk on malaria, now streaming on Netflix.

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