Saturday, October 25, 2014

Book Review: Patient Zero and Red Madness

PATIENT ZERO by Marilee Peters tells a series of engaging true stories of the world’s scariest epidemics. Focusing on the courageous pioneers of epidemiology, each case follows the quest of a scientist to identify “patient zero”, the first person to contract and spread the disease. In each of the seven deadly diseases examined, scientists were able to build on the work of others to extend our knowledge in the hopes of preventing future catastrophes.

More people have died of disease than wars or natural disasters. The epidemics chronicled in this text include The Great Plague (1665), The Soho Outbreak (1854), Yellow Fever in Cuba (1900), Typhoid in New York City (1906), Spanish Influenza (1918), Ebola in Zaire, (1976), and AIDS in the U.S. (1980).

Peters’ writing style incorporates elements of mystery and horror to bring these compelling stories to life. Whether focusing on sympathetic victims like the infant in London who started the cholera epidemic or over-the-top characters such as Typhoid Mary, the cases are certain to jumpstart interest in other books related to disease and disaster. The glossary, index, and suggested readings are useful for youth readers.

Although students may be attracted to the layout and use of clipart, the book suffers from the lack of authentic primary source documents. Although the book points out that John Graunt collected health statistics, readers don’t get the chance to see his work. This omission would be a great opportunity to connect with online resources such as digital collections. Samuel Pepys’ diary accounts provide exciting insights into The Great Plague of 1665.

Maps play a central role in the world of many scientists seeking the elusive “patient zero.” Probably the best known is Dr. John Snow’s Mapping of the cholera epidemic of London. Check out an interactive map at

Seeking online photographs is another way to enhance the book. The Library of Congress contains many excellent documents and photographs related to the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918. Chronicling American contains fascinating newspaper articles published during the epidemic at For more ideas, go to The Great Pandemic at

PATIENT ZERO mentions Google’s Flu Trends at Use this opportunity to introduce youth to this exciting source of data.

This book is particularly timely given the recent Ebola epidemics in Africa. Encourage youth to keep up-to-date on an interactive map from Healthmap at

Another, recently published book RED MADNESS (2014) by Gail Jarrow focuses on the pellagra epidemic of the early 20th century in the American South caused by vitamin deficiency disease. Scientists found that enriching the diet with niacin helped to resolve the problem.

To learn more about maps in nonfiction literature, check out my articles in the October and December 2014 issues of Teacher Librarian.

Publisher ARC used for review.

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