The Next Chapter

Dr. Bonnie Henry has spent her life studying how we get sick — her book shares how we can protect ourselves

In this 2009 interview, the B.C. public health doctor and epidemiologist spoke to Shelagh Rogers about her interest in public health and preventive medicine.
Originally published in 2009 and reissued in 2020, Dr. Bonnie Henry's Soap and Water & Common Sense is a guide to staying healthy in a germ-filled world. (House of Anansi Press, Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
Listen8:58

Dr. Bonnie Henry is an epidemiologist, or microbe hunter, and is currently the provincial health officer for British Columbia.

In her 2009 book, Soap and Water & Common Sense, she documented her interest in public health and preventative medicine, along with the three decades spent chasing microbes all over the world — including Ebola, polio, SARS and the H1N1 influenza outbreak.

During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Soap and Water & Common Sense has been reissued. 

In 2009, Dr. Henry spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing a guide to viruses, bacteria, parasites and disease.

Uncommon sense

"I often call it 'uncommon sense,' but we do know a lot about how to stay healthy. One of the basic things that we've been told our entire lives is handwashing. Although it wasn't always believed that handwashing made a difference.

"I was working as a physician in the military. I spent a number of years going to sea in the Navy, at a time where there weren't that many women who did that. I started getting involved with trying to understand why people were getting sick onboard the ship, it evolved from there. 

It wasn't always believed that handwashing made a difference.

"There were a number of outbreaks I was involved with in the military and a number of vaccine programs that we saw introduced really stopped infections. It evolved when I lived down in California and started working at an inner city community clinic. Then again, we started seeing patterns of disease.

"One of my colleagues at the time, Dr. Linda Hill, said to me, 'Bonnie, you have to be an epidemiologist. Look at what you're doing.' So she got me interested in looking at this."

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry is one of many health officers across the country who have become household names as they guide the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The human condition

"The Plague by Albert Camus captures the psyche of people. One of the things that I've learned around chasing infectious diseases is that they evoke a fear in people that is very different from other types of disasters. A lot of it comes from not understanding and not knowing and not being able to see these things that are causing disease.

"Camus wrote about the resistance to the Nazis in the Second World War. But that the psyche was the same as what we see with infectious disease outbreaks, where there's something that is unseen that moves through the population that strikes people down.

One of the things that I've learned around chasing infectious diseases is that they evoke a fear in people that is very different from other types of disasters.

"It struck me as being an important reflection on people's reactions to things."

Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about why she chose epidemiology as a field of study. 0:57

Microbes Inc. 

"Microbes, Inc. is an idea that came to me as a way of trying to explain the difference between the different types of microorganisms that make us sick — how some of them are much more fearful or stronger leaders than others, they are ones that have been around for a long time. Then we have newcomers. It was a way of trying to help people understand the difference, for example, between bacteria and viruses.

Microbes Inc. is an idea that came to me as a way of trying to explain the difference between the different types of microorganisms that make us sick.

"In each category, if we look at viruses, influenza is one clearly that's been around for a long time and that's caused a lot of issues and it's one of the senior leaders. 

"But then in terms of newer and more fearful diseases, viruses like Ebola and SARS, they evoke a type of fear because there's no treatment for them. They can cause very severe illness and they can evoke that fear that's so different that causes people to react."

Dr. Bonnie Henry's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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