New book: The Fatal Strain: On the Trail of the Avian Flu and the Coming Pandemic, by Alan Sipress ’83 (Viking)
The author: When a highly lethal strain of avian flu broke out in Asia in recent years, journalist Alan Sipress followed the emerging threat as it infiltrated jungle villages, mountain redoubts, and cities. When interviewing the mother of two victims in Java, Indonesia, he had to wear a white hooded jumpsuit with goggles, a respirator, and rubber gloves. Today the deputy financial editor at The Washington Post, Sipress has served as a Southeast Asia correspondent for the paper and in 2005 was awarded the Jesse Laventhol Prize for Deadline Writing (from the American Society of Newspaper Editors) for anchoring the team that covered the South Asian tsunami.
The book: In this in-depth look into the struggle to keep a fatal influenza pandemic at bay, Sipress recounts his travels tracking the avian flu — H5N1 virus — across nine countries and details his attempts to track down the flu’s origins and the precise locations where animals began transmitting the deadly strains to humans. The latest wave of avian flu in humans began in 2003 and has had a death rate of about 50 percent. Most of the victims caught the flu from birds or their droppings. If H5N1 mutates into a strain capable of human-to-human transmission, writes Sipress, the results could be catastrophic. “A few genetic tweaks and millions could perish,” he writes. Sipress, who interviewed patients, doctors, scientists, and national and international health officials, details the government cover-ups, bureaucratic red tape, and supply shortages that influenza experts face while trying to keep tabs on a ticking time bomb.
Opening lines: “Dowes Ginting, the most wanted man in Sumatra, lay dying. He had abandoned the Indonesian hospital, where he had seen his family succumb one after another, and fled deep into the mountains, trying to outrun the black magic, seeking refuge in a small, clapboard home beyond the cloud-shrouded peak of the Sinabung volcano. For four straight nights, a witch doctor hovered above him, resisting the evil spell.”
Reviews: The Washington Post, which named The Fatal Strain one of the “Best Books of 2009,” called it a “superb and sobering book about the shadowy progression of a virulent avian flu now moving across Asia.” Sipress’s “sketches of the heroic men and women at the frontlines enrich the narrative,” wrote Kirkus, “even as he expertly details the obstacles posed when a disease becomes a matter of politics, commerce, and culture class. Exemplary — and highly frightening — investigative reporting.” By Katherine Federici Greenwood