One of the consequences of living in a first-world country is that I don’t always know which diseases are no longer a real problem here and which diseases are no longer a problem at all. I’m sure about smallpox, I suppose, but what else? Until I read An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, I had no idea that there is still no cure for yellow fever. There’s a vaccine, thankfully, but once you have it? Treat the symptoms and hope for the best. Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure was even scarier; not only is the currently available vaccine for TB only sometimes effective, there are multiple-drug resistant strains of it, and treatment involves months of antibiotics. My most recent foray into the world of infectious disease was a blend of fact and fiction, but again, it left me a little freaked out; I had no idea that tens of thousands of people still die of cholera–the ‘blue death’–each year.
Deborah Hopkinson’s The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel describes an actual outbreak of cholera in London in 1854. Eel is fictional, as are most of his friends and associates, but the doctor who worked to prove the outbreak was caused by contaminated water was very real, as was the Reverend Henry Whitehead, who was initially skeptical but eventually came to believe the good doctor’s theory. The fight to find the proof to convince those in authority to remove the pump handle from the contaminated water pump is riveting, and the book’s young narrator and fast-paced narrative make it accessible to relatively young readers. I’m excited to give this one to my 3rd-grader.
Even if I didn’t necessarily want to know that cholera is still so terribly abroad in the world.