This comprehensive, fascinating journey through the history of epidemics focuses on the less-told story of how societies have responded to them - and what those responses reveal about their fears, their believes, and their times. When most of us hear the word epidemic, we think plague, festering wounds, unmitigated disease followed by death. A bout of SARS virtually shut down travel to Asia, the avian flu inspired farmers to kill thousands of animals, fearing human infection. Even at our most level-headed, the thought of an epidemic inspires a shudder of fear: it could happen to me. I could die unfairly, in a sweep of death carried in the wind. In "Dread", Philip Alcabes journeys through the history of epidemics, from the ancients to the present, to reveal how, more often than being pervasive threats, epidemics offer an accurate litmus test of our times, and our greatest fears. Inarguably, plagues have swept across continents and decimated populations: Alcabes isn't challenging history. But through his research he carefully and deftly reveals how epidemics have been responsible for misplaced fears, and in recent years, imagined ones.
With the black death of the 14th century that decimated European populations came new fears of strangers, poisoning and evil. In the Rhineland and parts of modern France and Switzerland, Christians hunted and burned Jews to death because they believed them responsible for spreading infestation. By the 18th century, it was thought that miasma, or bad air was responsible for the spread of deadly disease. By the 19th century, germ theory had arrived, and at last people could see the threats of diseases like cholera and tuberculosis. And with the practical identification of germs came a new host of enemies, from the Typhoid Marys of the early day, to more modern fears of bioterrorist outbreaks led by Muslim terrorist cells. As diseases are born and outbreaks unleashed, new fears surface, new enemies are born, and new behaviours inevitably emerge. What, for example, do we really mean when we talk about the 'obesity epidemic?' "Dread" dissects the fascinating story of the imagined epidemic: the one that we think is happening, or might happen; the one that frightens us, disguises moral meanings and political agendas and, at heart, reveals the deep seated fear within us all.show more