Health officials have yet to determine the cause of a severe and mysterious respiratory illness infecting hundreds of people in Asia and other countries. But their uncertainty shouldn't be a prescription for panic, says science writer and Johns Hopkins University writing professor Wayne Biddle, author of A Field Guide to Germs (Anchor Books, June 2002, second edition.)
"Put away the disinfectant soaps and sprays, and turn off the television news," Biddle says. "We are here because our ancestors somehow avoided deadly onslaughts."
Biddle, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, says that the fear of catching a dreaded disease can "infect the imagination more easily than the body."
"Our defenses, which are formidable, are constantly adjusting," Biddle says. "We are constantly warding off infection as a way of life. In a sense, we are all exposed, all the time."
To provide context for stories on this new disease, Biddle can discuss at length the 1918 flu pandemic and how far we've come since then in treatment and prevention.
Rather than frightening readers, A Field Guide to Germs uses the style of an old-fashioned field guide to arm readers with facts to debunk myths. Updated with new entries and medical information, the latest edition catalogs several headline-making germs like smallpox and anthrax that have become a part of everyday discourse in post-Sept. 11 America. While news stories may frighten the public, Biddle's Field Guide is presented "not with the quack promise of self-diagnosis, but with the absolute certainty that a little knowledge is always better than zip," Biddle says.
His research makes him a good source of user-friendly information about other recent microscopic headline-makers, such as the Norwalk virus that hit several cruise ships last fall. To speak with Wayne Biddle, contact Amy Cowles at (410) 516-7160.
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