Gloves and wellies at an Ebola treatment centre in Goma, DR Congo Credit: (PA/Sally Hayden via ZUMA Wire)

How to stop a pandemic

Amid hot-headed debate about coronavirus, Adam Kucharski's book offers cold, hard facts
March 28, 2020
Adam Kucharski’s illuminating book was published on 13th February, the day China reported a 10-fold increase in coronavirus cases. That was also the day diagnostic rules were made stricter. The Rules of Contagion is as much about how we establish such rules as it is about infectious diseases. 

Kucharski—a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who has worked on the Ebola epidemic, dengue fever and flu—is a mathematician by training. His main interest is in modelling: how we can analyse trends and forecast future outbreaks. Though, as he wryly notes, those who work in this area like to joke: “If you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen… one pandemic.” In other words, they all play out differently.  

Still, comparable principles can apply in making sense of all sorts of things—from financial and marketing crazes to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and incidents of urban gun crime. Kucharski combines historical anecdote, graphs and key statistics from recent crises such as the 2008 financial crash. There is also a strand of memoir: as a child, the author suffered from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, often associated with Zika. He provides a sober yet gripping account of epidemiological thinking but also ranges to more general “viral” events: social media scares and internet viruses as well as the spread of new ideas. It is not always easy reading, but is always learned and lucid. 

Malaria rears its ugly head time and again. Kucharski notes: “In the time it has taken you to read this book, around 300 people will have died of malaria.” While some pandemics end, others rumble on, abetted by poverty and inequality. On the positive side, understanding contagion has halved the death rate from infectious diseases in the past two decades. Coronavirus has prompted hot-headed public and media reaction; this book offers comfort in the form of cold, hard facts.  

The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread—and Why They Stop  by Adam Kucharski (Constable, £20)