Bugs, Drugs and Smoke: Stories from Public Health

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Edinburgh, United Kingdom, 1950s. Bangaon, India, 1971. San Francisco, USA, May 1994. Cape Town, South Africa, 1999. Is this the beginning of a chronicle of a life spent travelling around the world? That is one possibility, but one that would not do justice to the subject of this review.

These snippets actually represent the beginning of some chapters of Bugs, Drugs and Smoke: Stories from Public Health, a book published by the World Health Organization (WHO) at the end of 2011. I came across this book a few months ago and feel that, because of the unique perspective on public health it gives, I should bring it to your attention. The first reason for its individuality is that it is targeted at a young audience. Most WHO publications are reports and journals, full of technical terms, figures and charts, meaning many youngsters are unlikely to read them unless they already have an interest in public health. However, Bugs, Drugs and Smoke uses a simple and engaging language with the aim of inspiring its readers to pursue a career in public health. I think this attempt to address young people directly is something to praise the WHO for.

However, the book does not exclude other, older, audiences either. Overall, it is a very interesting compilation of ‘stories from public health about public health’ that any adult can enjoy. My favourite is a story about oral rehydration salts. Bugs, Drugs and Smoke helps you understand the surprising science behind this treatment, and how it has been applied to help save millions of lives. On reading it, I could not believe that such a simple treatment has succeeded in helping so many people worldwide to recover from the serious dehydration caused by bacterial diseases such as cholera.

The book also describes the role of the WHO in eradicating smallpox, and its efforts in trying to do the same with other infectious diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis. Furthermore, it covers the ‘love triangle’ between the WHO, governments and the tobacco industry, and shows how the WHO is fighting to dismantle the stigmas attached to mental illness. Finally, it explains the rationale behind the WHO’s response to outbreaks such as the Ebola outbreak in Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1995.

Now, you may be thinking this all sounds a bit like a marketing campaign for the WHO, and, in some ways, you would be right. However, the campaign is balanced with stories about individual people doing astounding work, allowing it to become much more than just a promotional text. This is the main reason why I was keen to publicly comment on this book: it takes a human interest approach to public health and does away with institutional discourse. Bugs, Drugs and Smoke features people whose local initiatives have helped many. For example, Grégoire Ahongbonon, who “started out repairing tyres” and ended up founding the Saint Camille de Lellis Association. His religious beliefs, and experiences witnessing the injustices of people suffering from mental disorders, inspired him to start this project, and, consequently, help thousands of mental health patients reintegrate into the societies of Côte d’Ivoire and Benin. To me, these are the kind of stories that have the potential to spark new interests and enthusiasm in public health. It certainly worked for me.

A PDF version of the book and the link to the website where it can be purchased are available here: http://www.who.int/about/history/publications/public_health_stories/en/index.html

Lucia de la Riva Perez has studied the Masters in Science Communication in 2011/2012.

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