Hard on the heels of the South Asian tsunami and Katrina may be another natural disaster for which the world is ill-prepared: a pandemic of avian influenza (an epidemic is a relatively localized outbreak of contagious disease; a pandemic is more widespread, perhaps even global, in scope). The last flu pandemic, in 1918, took at least 40 million lives, and the World Health Organization fears that another one may kill "as many as 100 million people in the next few years." In The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu (New Press, $21.95), Mike Davis sums up what is known about the flu's vector, a virus known as H5N1, which has devastated populations of poultry and wild birds in Asia and, in some cases, has jumped into human populations, killing two out of every three persons infected. He also points out the excruciating choice faced by poor farmers who discover the virus in their chickens and weigh the duty of reporting the fact to health officials against the certainty that their flocks will be destroyed, with woefully inadequate compensation. In Thailand, for example, the payment per bird was about 50 cents, but the value of a cock to a family could be as high as $250. Davis is plainly out to instill a productive fear in his readers. In the last line of the book, he writes, "World indifference towards the AIDS holocaust in Africa . . . provides a lamentable template for current global inaction in the face of the avian influenza threat."

-- Dennis Drabelle