From anthrax to yellow fever

In Tel Aviv, technology is helping to change the face of scientific book publishing.

Dr Stephen Berger 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr Stephen Berger 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As Israelis enjoy Hebrew Book Week, Tel Aviv resident Dr. Stephen Berger is celebrating the simultaneous publication of 419 books in English.
“That’s a total of 97,129 pages,” notes Berger, who is director of Geographic Medicine and Clinical Microbiology at the Tel Aviv Medical Center.
The books, all in the field of geographic medicine, are the fruits of a 20-year project by the center to track the status of infectious diseases around the world.
They include comprehensive information about individual diagnoses and mass outbreaks of diseases around the world, “from anthrax to yellow fever” as Berger jocularly puts it.
The books cover every single infectious disease diagnosed in every country in the world. They explain what the disease is, how it is transmitted and how to treat it.
Also shown is the number of instances of each disease by country.
The data in the books were generated automatically from a gigantic database at the Tel Aviv Medical Center. As well as helping create the books, technology will also make it easier to share them worldwide; they have been published in e-book format, and can easily be read on a computer or electronic book reader like the Kindle or Kobo.
“We programmed the computer to output all the data from the database in ebook format,” says Berger. “Nobody has ever produced anything like this before.”
According to Berger, this is the first time this sort of data on infectious diseases has been made globally accessible. “There are no books out there that contain up-to-date information like these do,” he adds. “Most textbooks contain data that is at least five years old.”
Berger believes the books will help researchers, public health officials from organizations like the World Health Organization, and the media understand the global impact of infectious diseases.
The growing danger of infectious diseases hit the headlines in 2009, when swine flu caused a global pandemic.
The swine flu virus, known as H1N1, originated in China but soon spread around the world. About 4,300 Israelis were infected with the virus, and more than 80 died.
Global warming, increased international travel and migration make it easier than ever for deadly diseases like swine flu to spread rapidly. Even diseases that have been eradicated from certain countries are now making a comeback, says Berger.
Malaria proved fatal for many of Israel’s Jewish settlers in the 19th century. The disease wiped out almost all the first residents of Hadera.
While Israel eradicated malaria in 1951, the number of Israelis being diagnosed with the disease today is on the rise.
“Malaria is more common than AIDS in Israel, even though you can’t contract malaria here,” says Berger.
Among those diagnosed include Israelis who contracted malaria abroad and refugees from countries like Eritrea who were infected prior to arriving in Israel.
Berger believes the newly published books will also help researchers compare rates of infection in different countries and understand which diseases exist where.
Some of Berger’s data are surprising. The US, for example, still reports cases of leprosy.
Israel, which successfully eradicated most of its local diseases, diagnosed its last leprosy patient in 1978.
“There is only one disease that Israel has and the US does not,” says Berger, “and that’s Mediterranean spotted fever, which is transmitted by tick bites.”
The books also include important data on bioterrorism, including about deadly diseases like anthrax.
Is the simultaneous publication of 419 books a world record? Berger has already contacted the Guinness Book of Records to find out.
“I’m pretty certain it is,” says Berger. “I know Isaac Asimov, the American science fiction writer, published over 500 books, but he didn’t do it all in one go. Mind you, he did write his books on a typewriter.”