A book by Montana Author David Quammen

People & Place
  • Spillover Book - David Quammen
  • Montana Author - David Quammen

Quammen’s riveting new book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (W.W. Norton & Co) traces how most of the infectious diseases that afflict humans—causing weird outbreaks, epidemics, and in some cases global pandemics, with millions dead—come to us from wildlife and disturbances of ecosystems. Any such sudden transfer of disease, from one species to another, is known as a “spillover.” “It’s a frightening and fascinating masterpiece of science reporting that reads like a detective story”—Walter Isaacson. 

It’s a startling, scary book, yet hopeful book that delivers news from the frontlines of public health, deep insight into the workings of science, and all the pleasures of a crackling good read.  It makes clear that animal diseases are inseparable from us because we are inseparable from the natural world.  

David Quammen talks about his book...

We like to think of Montana as a remote and halcyon place, but in today’s reality it’s very much part of wider worlds—including the world of emerging diseases.  Traveling from my home in Bozeman to Central Africa or southern Asia, for instance, as I did often for research on Spillover, takes only about 27 hours.  I can be in Kinshasa or Brazzaville or Hong Kong or Singapore, wearing the same shirt and socks, almost before I’ve begun to stink.  These fast connections are very welcome to me when it’s time to come home.  But they serve as reminder that a dangerous virus, newly emerged from a bat in the Congo or a monkey in Bangladesh, could likewise make the trip quickly, arriving at any Montana airport before the unfortunate person carrying it has had time to get sick and die. 

Diseases that emerge from wildlife and spill into humans are known as zoonoses.  Don’t be misled by the slightly technical ring; it’s a word of the future, with which we’ll all become increasingly familiar.  And don’t be fooled by the exotic sound of names such as Ebola, West Nile, Machupo, Nipah encephalitis, Kyasanur Forest disease, SARS-coronavirus, and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.  One aspect of globalization is the globalization of disease.  Not every scary new virus travels well on airplanes, but some do.  And when the next fearful pandemic emerges, we can be confident that Montana will be included. 

 I don’t say this to make you paranoid or hypochondriacal.  I merely mean: You have as much reason as anyone for wanting to understand the realities of how these diseases emerge and travel.  Knowledge empowers.  Knowledge can help keep you healthy.  Knowledge, as revealed by a quest, can even be fun. 

That’s the point of Spillover, just published after six years of work.  It’s a scientific travelogue, a journey of discovery through faraway parts of the world, made in company with the scientists who study these diseases that are discovering us.  The book begins in eastern Australia, touches down in a Congo forest, on a rooftop in Bangladesh, in bat caves of southern China, at a restaurant in Borneo, in a laboratory in the Netherlands, at the CDC in Atlanta, and among Lyme-disease researchers in suburban New York, finally coming to its end on the south side of Bozeman, where a certain elm tree reminds me of a certain lesson in ecology, population dynamics, and humility.

I’ll leave the details of that home lesson for you to read in my final chapter, if you’re so inclined.  I don’t want to give away the ending.  But I can tell you the theme of the book: We are all in this together.


  • David Quammen of Bozeman, the award-winning author of The Song of the Dodo, Monster of God, and The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, is also a Contributing Writer for National Geographic. Spillover chronicles his quest to understand disease spillovers of the past, of the present, and what scientists foresee as the Next Big One.
  •  Dr. Mark D. Vinton, Specialist at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital, Reports on the Status of Commonly Known Infectious Diseases in Montana.
  • Hepatitis C is big in the news: Everyone born between 1945-1965 should have a test because the virus has no symptoms. It is not routinely found on blood tests, so we have to do the Hepatitis C blood test to find it. If left untreated, it can munch away on your liver causing liver failure, or liver cancer. It is also now treatable — we can clear the virus in 75-90% of cases.
  • HIV is still around. About 20% of folks who have it don’t know it. It’s a good idea to get tested. There are very good medications these days, it’s not a death sentence any more.
  • Pertussis (or whooping cough) has caused deaths in Washington and California. We have seen this in our schools. The vaccine from childhood wears off, and there is a big risk among high school students now, unless they get a booster vaccine. The high school kids and adults don’t get the characteristic “whoop” to the cough — it’s just a bad, dry cough that lasts about three months untreated. The bad news is that it can kill infants, who are too young for the vaccine.
  • Hanta virus is uncommon in MT. The safe thing to do when cleaning up after mice droppings is to use a spray bleach product first to avoid getting the dust into the air and to use a good mask if there is dust — a mask rated N95 will work. Symptoms of Hanta virus are sneaky though — fever, dry cough, muscle aches like the flu. If this happens after cleaning mouse droppings (by about three weeks), you should be seen and tested.
  • Rabies is still around. Make sure your cats and dogs are vaccinated. Dogs are family in Montana, and they run free while we hike and bike. It is important to make sure your pet stays healthy for everyone’s sake. We have bat rabies and skunk rabies in the state. The rabies vaccine for people is now four shots in the arm. As a kid I remember it being 28 shots in the belly. Those days are long gone, thank goodness.


Learn more about DQ @ http://www.davidquammen.com/