Letters from the West

Rocky Barker: Author David Quammen offers hope in the face of spillover diseases from animals

When author David Quammen describes Americans’ reaction to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, he could be talking about the national debt, climate change or immigration.

“Too much fear. Too much selfish worry to look at the bigger picture,” Quammen told an audience last week at The College of Idaho.

Quammen, the author of the bestselling book “Spillover,” about the spread of animal diseases to the human population, has a way of telling the big picture through stories of scientists, caregivers and creatures. Diseases such as Ebola, influenza or SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) came from viruses from a variety of animals.

The worldwide spread of a “zoonosis” — an animal disease that spreads to humans — is chilling and potentially panic-inducing, given our modern world and what we know of AIDS, rapid international travel, social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Last year’s coverage of the Ebola epidemic, Quammen said, was a mix of “fear-mongering, confusion and xenophobia.” He acknowledged playing a small part, as a regular commentator on CNN.

But his book is just the opposite. It tells the story of the viruses, the animals that are the “reservoir hosts,” and the scientists and doctors fighting to stay ahead of diseases that can move to humans.

Quammen lives in Bozeman, Mont., and is known for bestselling nonfiction, such as “The Song of the Dodo,” and his longtime column, Natural Acts, in Outside Magazine. He has long been a voice for protecting biological diversity, not simply because of its importance to our own survival, but also because of the richness it brings the world.

His book was College of Idaho’s First Year Book, which all first-year students are asked to read before arriving on campus. Quammen was on campus this spring as the inaugural Henberg environmental lecturer.

In taking audience questions, he explored how the loss of biodiversity might be opening us up to more zoonosis. Studies show, for instance, that children might be more susceptible to Lyme disease, carried by ticks, in their manicured backyards than in the wild, unkempt hinterland beyond.

The Ebola epidemic has slowed now, despite the world’s initial poor response, but not until more than 25,000 people suffered from the disease and more than 10,000 died. Its reservoir host, the animal that carries it and could start another spillover when conditions are right, remains unknown.

But we do know we share this planet with 7.5 billion other human beings and the population continues to grow. The traditional view of humans eating themselves out of house and home is unlikely to be the process that dramatically reduces our population, Quammen said.

Instead, he predicted, we will go through a process similar to what nature uses to control populations, called an “outbreak.” His example was tent caterpillars. These plant-eating insects explode in population and then, almost as suddenly, the population collapses. In the close quarters of the “tents,” the virus quickly spreads and kills.

Humans are ripe for an outbreak ourselves, Quammen said. In 1918-19, 50 million people were killed by the Spanish flu. AIDS has killed about 39 million. The next one could be far worse.

“We are in an unprecedented situation,” Quammen said.

But Quammen does not say the sky is falling. He cites Greg Dwyer, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, and a message of hope. Some tent caterpillars survive because they avoid where other caterpillars spread the virus and die.

Caterpillars learn; human learn as well.

“We humans are not doomed to catastrophic crash,” Quammen said, “because we’re smarter than tent caterpillars.”