One of the reasons why infectious disease as a medical speciality has so much more allure, to me, than all other aspects of Medicine is that it is explicitly connected to many facets of the world. A person's social history -- what they do for a living, who they do it with, where they travel, their habits, their pets, where they live, and their hobbies -- all condition what microbe they encounter and whether that microbe can damage them.
In short, the anthropology of infectious disease is a crucial, intellectually stimulating, and fascinating aspect of infectious disease. University of Connecticut Professor Merrill Singer's recent book on the topic, simply entitled Anthropology of Infectious Disease, provides a comprehensive tour of this topic, providing an important grounding for anyone who has an interest in understanding infectious disease.
Why did botulism surge in the republic of Georgia after the fall of the Soviet Union? Why did kuru proliferate and then vanish? Why do certain prisoners traffic in tuberculous sputum? All of these questions can be answered through the lens of anthropology.
As Singer notes,
Infectious diseases are never only biological in their nature, course, or impact. What they are and what they do are deeply entwined with human sociocultural systems, including the ways humans understand, organize, and treat each other.
The anthropology of infectious disease is the arena of applied and basic anthropological research that focuses on the interaction among sociocultural, biological, political, economic, and ecological variables involved in the etiology, prevalence, experience, impact, cultural understanding, prevention, and treatment of infectious diseases.
This book concretizes, through myriad examples, the many ways in which an infectious disease's proximate causes are, in an anthropological context, secondary to distal causes in, as Singer puts it, an "ecological web of causation."
While I may take issue with many of Singer's political leanings and assumptions, especially his conflation of political equality (which I champion) with economic "equality" and poverty and his de-emphasis of biosecurity, the book does provide a comprehensive overview that provides the reader with a fuller context, or an essential key, for understanding the realm of infectious disease.