Union University
Edward P. Hammons Center for Scientific Studies at Union University

Book Review

Elsie Y. Smith

Elsie Y. Smith
Associate Professor of Biology

Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections
Madeline Drexler
Details: Feb. 25, 2003, Penguin Books, ISBN: 0142002615
Posted: May 5, 2006

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Madeline Drexler, a former medical columnist for The Boston Globe Magazine, is a science and medical journalist whose numerous articles have appeared in The New York Times, The American Prospect, Self, Good Housekeeping as well as various other national publications. She has received recognition and been awarded several prizes for her outstanding journalistic efforts in the area of science. One has only to read Secret Agents to experience her ability to weave drama and intrigue into everyday scientific events. The language she uses is understandable and engaging to those both inside and outside the scientific community. Although filled with accurate, updated scientific facts, the book has the flavor of a mystery novel difficult to put down once you begin reading.

One of her apparent goals is to make readers aware of the extensive and intricate interactions occurring between humans and microorganisms. She portrays microbes as secret agents that have infiltrated every aspect of our environment and daily activities, and are shaping our lives and futures in ways that only the well informed can understand. Acting as undercover agents capable of weakening or actually killing us, she explains how microbes can and do change the course of human events in an inescapable and often uncontrollable manner. The politics and battles within the scientific community as it struggles to identify, monitor, control or eliminate microbial agents that have invaded our foods and contaminated our water are portrayed vividly and colorfully in this book. The author addresses the seriousness of the current problem of antibiotic resistance as well as the threat of bioterrorism in a manner that will undoubtedly scare many readers. Still, they will be compelled to read to the finish.

Among the interesting topics discussed is the appearance of more pathogenic microbes in meats, the unexpected appearance of bacterial pathogens such as Shigella and Salmonella in alfalfa sprouts and parsley, and the role of various antimicrobial agents in the induction of mutations that lead to antibiotic resistance. The point is also made that many abnormal conditions once thought to be psychological or purely physiological in origin are now known to be the result of the presence of certain bacteria and viruses residing secretly in the body.

Drexler supports immediate preparation at national, state and local levels to guard against bioterrorist attacks using microorganisms as secret weapons. She also supports the establishment of national centers to guard against flu pandemics, which is certainly timely considering the current threat posed by avian flu. Clearly, Madeline Drexler has not only identified current issues that need to be confronted, she has displayed long range vision exceeding that of many both inside and outside the scientific community.

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