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Thomas J. Bollyky: Plagues and the Paradox of Progress

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In Partnership with Taste of Science

Why the news about the global decline of infectious diseases is not all good.

Plagues and parasites have played a central role in world affairs, shaping the evolution of the modern state, the growth of cities, and the disparate fortunes of national economies. This book tells that story, but it is not about the resurgence of pestilence. It is the story of its decline. For the first time in recorded history, virus, bacteria, and other infectious diseases are not the leading cause of death or disability in any region of the world. People are living longer, and fewer mothers are giving birth to many children in the hopes that some might survive. And yet, the news is not all good. Recent reductions in infectious disease have not been accompanied by the same improvements in income, job opportunities, and governance that occurred with these changes in wealthier countries decades ago. There have also been unintended consequences. In this book, Thomas Bollyky explores the paradox in our fight against infectious disease: the world is getting healthier in ways that should make us worry.

Bollyky interweaves a grand historical narrative about the rise and fall of plagues in human societies with contemporary case studies of the consequences. Bollyky visits Dhaka—one of the most densely populated places on the planet—to show how low-cost health tools helped enable the phenomenon of poor world megacities. He visits China and Kenya to illustrate how dramatic declines in plagues have affected national economies. Bollyky traces the role of infectious disease in the migrations from Ireland before the potato famine and to Europe from Africa and elsewhere today.

Historic health achievements are remaking a world that is both worrisome and full of opportunities. Whether the peril or promise of that progress prevails, Bollyky explains, depends on what we do next.

Thomas J. Bollyky is the Director of the Global Health Program and senior fellow for global health, economics, and development at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is also an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University.  Bollyky directed the first CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force devoted to global health, entitled The Emerging Global Health Crisis: Noncommunicable Diseases in Low- and Middle-Income Countries.

Tara Bracken (moderator) graduated from the University of Virginia in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology and a minor in French. She completed her doctorate under the mentorship of Dr. Julie Moore at the University of Georgia, specializing in Infectious Disease and Global Health. During her graduate career, Tara developed a passion for science communication, creating the popular science blog Of Microbes and Men, serving as editor and organizer for the Athens Science Café, freelance writing for the PLOS Blogs network and the University of Georgia News Service, and producing content for WUGA, NPR’s Athens, GA affiliate station. Now a science writer at the National Science Foundation, Tara hopes to share her passion for science through a career in science communication.


Taste of Science is an annual festival in cities across the United States. Our purpose is to convey science to a wider audience by holding events, recording podcasts, making videos or any other means our find to engage with the public. We are run 100% by volunteers who are scientists, engineers, teachers, science communicators and those who do no science at all. Our shared goal is to help disseminate science to all who are interested.

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