Cover of Deadly Feasts as seen on Goodreads. In my ebook it was a plain white background!
I recently finished Deadly Feasts by Richard Rhodes, a non-fiction book focused on the discovery and study of prion diseases. It was an interesting look at how diseases are studied in general, and how these diseases seem to break rules and make studying them into decades-long endeavors. It starts with kuru, a disease of the South Forte people of Papua New Guinea linked to a tradition of eating deceased relatives. (The tradition ended when the disease origin was explained to them.) Other famous prion diseases include mad cow disease (aka bovine spongiform encephalopathy), scrapie (in sheep), and Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (aka CJD or vCJD, which got a shout-out on the season 16 finale of Grey’s Anatomy.) All of these are diseases in which the victim could be incubating the problem for years—even decades—before symptoms show. All of them attack the brain, causing coordination or balance issues, mental decline, and then death. We have no cure for any prion disease at this time.
Positives: This book fascinated me. The mystery of what caused the diseases was compelling, even though I’d already heard of prions. When it was published (in 1997) prions were still controversial. An author’s note in my version even stated that Richard Rhodes suspected prions weren’t just protein, however now it’s more widely accepted. The book was very well written and organized with a huge amount of information crafted into an easy to understand story.
Negatives: Reading this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic was probably not a great choice. The book predicted a second wave of CJD epidemic in the UK (due to food tainted with mad cow disease eaten in the 80’s and 90’s, the first wave occurred in the late 90’s) and that epidemic would be in 2015. Aren’t we glad that didn’t happen? Although it probably means it’s still coming. Luckily, it’s far less contagious than a respiratory virus (thank goodness!), but it’s sadly more deadly. And those in medicine still need to remain vigilant, as a cornea transplant, dura mater transplants, blood transfusions, and possibly contaminated dental/surgical tools have transmitted CJD or vCJD. Terrifying!
Overall rating: 4/5
A great read for anyone interested in medicine, epidemiology, medical mysteries, scientific mysteries, or pandemics. It’s written at a level understood by anyone with an 8th grade or higher science background, so no one should feel intimidated to read it. The author won a Pulitzer Prize for a previous book, and the quality of the writing shows.
I don’t recommend for anyone with hypochondria or severe health-anxiety, especially in the current pandemic.
Have you read Deadly Feasts? What did you think?