Book launch - Gone Viral by Dr Frank Bowden

Here is a speech I gave earlier in the month – my first book launch and Dr Bowden’s first book. It was a wonderful event at ANU with over a hundred people present to aknowledge the hard work and achievements of one of our local doctors. The book is a great read and is for sale as an ebook aswell as the traditional kind. Definately worth a read. I did write this as a speech so it may not read as smoothly as a blog KG

“Welcome everyone here tonight to be a part of this event and to celebrate the achievement of Dr Frank Bowden.

I have been very fortunate to be the ACT Health Minister for some time now – over this time I have had a privileged insight into the amazing people that work in our health system in various roles and the author of this book Professor Frank Bowden is one of these people.

Frank’s inscription on the inside cover of his book to me finishes with the warning – “I hope you enjoy the stories herein although I must warn you that some are probably not bedside reading” – on reading this week I wondered whether the art of understatement is now included in the curriculum at ANU medical school.

A doctor, who shall remain nameless once told me that infectious disease specialists were “a little bit odd”. I have to say at the beginning of the swine-flu pandemic I tended to agree with this doc, particularly as I was told quite excitedly by one that the pandemic was definitely on its way in the ACT as notifications to public health authorities for H1N1 had, for the first time, outstripped that of chlamydia. There was a buzz of energy and excited faces about this piece of news that I didn’t fully understand.

After reading this book I did contemplate attending this launch wrapped in glad wrap with a bag full of anti bacterial wipes and spray – however, as Frank lets us know this book is all about “the germs that share our lives” indeed in the first few pages the reader gets the message clear as clear could be – “there were at last count, 750 trillion (that’s 750 million million) bacteria in the average human gut”. Well, I nearly put the book down then and there, and part of me wanted to – but I was hooked.

When I was documenting my thoughts for this launch I wondered how do I describe this book – it has so many important themes, so many concerning facts, some equally disturbing (for the lay person) virus’s and diseases and some amazing stories of clinical practice. How do you sum that up?

Well at the end of the day – this book is simply – a wonderfully good read.

With skill and clarity that could only have been gained through years and years of specialising in his craft, Frank is able to take the average non-medical reader on a journey through his world. Where science is made simple, where the importance of public health messages we all know but sometimes ignore are explained, where diseases and viruses we’ve heard of – and some we haven’t –  (and indeed would prefer not too)  are  identified and where real stories of recovery and of death are expertly and sensitively treated.

I have to confess that some in my family were worried when I explained that I would be reading and launching this book – I think the slightly neurotic, over protective control freak personality traits that some who know me think I exhibit from time to time – worried them and to arm me with a bible about germs, infections, virus and disease was a very disturbing development indeed. I was not worried at all of course and I immediately identified and sympathised with Frank’s mother as portrayed in the book. What a sensible woman she must have been.

I agree completely with her view on cracked cups, tea towels, cans with dents and of course rabbits are off our menu at home aswell. Although I haven’t yet bathed the kids in dettol this is definately worth investigating further.

I had a couple of weird coincidences whilst reading the book – I sat down to watch the Velveteen Rabbit with my son (and as a multi tasker I did have the book with me) when almost simultaneously I got to the part of the book about scarlet fever, which as many of you would know is the illness that strikes down the young boy in the story and as Frank wrote how his mother lost her favourite teddy bear to scarlet fever I watched the poor tragic boy screaming as his precious rabbit endured the same fate as Frank’s mum toy by being cremated due to fears of contamination.

The second coincidence happened just as I was reading about Staph Aureus, when 2 of my children on my reading this started exhibiting exactly what Frank had described as symptoms – headache, muscle ache, chills and shivering – it was at this point an internal medical emergency was called and both were off to the GP with Franks words clear in my head “ I have seen fit young people with the same infection become sick in the morning, be in intensive care that night and dead by the end of the week”  – thankfully for them and me it wasn’t Staph Aureus but a more common condition known as Tonsilitis!  and the third coincidence is a story about herpes but I’m not sure I’m ready to share that story with you.

My point here is that whilst many of us lack the in depth and expert knowledge of the author of this book these really are germs that share our lives and we could all benefit from understanding a little bit more about them.

The book is witty and full of humorous lines –  indeed laugh out loud moments – for example Chapter 11 titled “ like a blow torch to the groin” to explain one of the worst medical smells Dr Bowden has ever smelt (and as we learn there have been a few) to describe the relatively unknown dono vanosis. One of my favourites lines in the book follows a quote from a fellow doctor explaining to Dr Bowden  – and I quote –  “the chances of you catching AIDs from the Hepatitis B vaccine is about the same probability of you being kicked to death by a duck”. Franks line from the book which follows this is – “leaving me reassured, if somewhat watchful near ponds and lakes” –

However, there is a very serious side to this book.

Interwoven into the chapters about different illnesses are public health messages about disease prevention, vaccination and inside perspectives gained from working in different environments about the social determinants of health. The section of the book which focuses on Frank’s experiences in the NT working with indigenous health workers and local communities is informative and inspiring. It is a candid account of victories and losses in public health services and a lesson for all who work in this space, including politicians, to learn from.

Franks seamlessly interweaves the difference in disease penetrations and prevalence and access to clinical treatment including vaccination between the developed and the developing world.

While it is frustrating for public health experts and indeed all of us,  to witness such discrepancy between countries I think the overwhelming message of Dr Bowden’s book is positive and optimistic – taking us through the diseases of the past, the current array of various bugs and germs whilst briefly and (very concerningly for neurotics amongst us) touching on what might happen when one of these germs mutates into something unknown – a virus that is yet to exist, we don’t know it and /or cant readily treat it. (although on the one hand scary for people like me this scenario is  incredibly interesting to specialists like Dr Bowden, in fact it opens up a whole new line of work)

Whilst the contrast between the developed and developing world are clear themes within the book as is the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous health serious attention is also given in the book to the issue of hand hygiene both for an individual’s own well-being but also in the hospital setting. After reading this book it would be very easy to want to ban stethoscopes, ties, and lanyards out of existence as would it be to introduce serious sanctions for those who provide clinical services without washing their hands frequently and at a minimum between patients. The story in the book where a senior doctor goes from bed to bed pressing a stomach wound here and a stomach wound there and then another and another is hard to believe except that it is true.

I agree with Frank’s view that we need to carefully but seriously consider expanding the public reporting of the rate of hospital acquired infection information to the community as a way of letting health staff know that this area of performance is equal to the other areas of their employment most of which are already subject to clinical and performance review

One area which the book doesn’t cover is the enormous contribution that Dr Bowden has made in his chosen field throughout his career so far.

We all know Frank Bowden as infectious diseases physician at the Canberra Hospital, the director of the Canberra Sexual Health Centre and Professor of Medicine at the Australian National University.

But what the book allows us to share are the parts of Frank’s career prior to arriving in Canberra. The young doctor who was at the forefront of AIDS treatment back in the days of misinformation and fear. We see the young man who not only wanted to help these patients but who also wanted to understand everything about this horrific illness and how to prevent people from getting it. We learn about the doctor, who in search of new challenges went to the NT where he threw himself into indigenous health particularly in the areas of sexually transmitted diseases.

We learn about the doctor who led and was part of some significant achievements during his time in the NT whether it was through reducing the prevalence of a particular illness or allowing health workers to understand more about particular STI’s aswell as pioneering new screening techniques (I’ll never look at a tampon now in quite the same light).

We also see a doctor who cares deeply about his patients, particularly those who are marginalised or disadvantaged and who has dedicated his career to providing the best care possible as he continues in his quest for answers.

We are very fortunate to have Dr Bowden on the staff at the Canberra Hospital where he works as a teacher, researcher and clinician and a powerful advocate for public health.

One of Dr Bowden’s great strengths is that he is a great communicator (not always a trait common to the medical profession). He can get the message across whether it be about Flu, (one of his favourites- Chlamydia) MRSA, Golden staf, SARS, Tetanus, Hepatitis and a whole range of other’s that I can’t even pronounce or whether it’s about the sadness and real emotion of seeing people die, often before their time, when he or his colleagues have not been able to help – and that’s what he’s done in this book.

I enjoyed this book enormously. It was a rollercoaster ride from chapter to chapter as I laughed at the funny bits, chocked up at the sad and as my heart raced with my newly acquired knowledge about things it’s probably best I know nothing about.

For us who work in public health in all our various positions, this book is inspirational reading, not only because it celebrates the work of those who have come before and conquered some of these germs, or because it shows that for some of us lucky people how far we have come in understanding and responding to viruses and disease – and it does all these things – but mainly because it’s clear once you finish this book, how much more there is to be done.

Dr Bowden, thankyou for your book and your efforts to get greater understanding  of infectious diseases across the community, your efforts to promote tolerance for those who are marginalised through their illnesses and  to generally improve the lives of all of us through your work

It gives me great pleasure to launch your book “Gone Viral, the germs that share our lives” tonight.

Thank you.