Sonia Shah

By Dianna Xing

Sonia Shah (1969-Present) is an American investigative journalist, science historian, and author of multiple prize-winning books on international politics, human rights, gender equality, and corporate power in developing nations. She grew up with her parents, both practicing medicine in the northeastern United States, and her extended working-class family in Mumbai and Bangalore, India.  The experience of seeing extreme poverty (in India) was deeply confusing to her at such a young age, and it was then that her life-long interest in the inequality within societies first developed [1]. As a contemporary writer, her works have already become deeply influential, appearing in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, and more. Shah has also been featured on RadioLab, Fresh Air, and TED, where her talk “Three Reasons We Still Haven’t Gotten Rid of Malaria” has been viewed over 1,000,000 times [1]. Shah’s ability to connect with readers and viewers from a multitude of backgrounds places her on the forefront of fighting social injustice as a voice that is meant to be heard.

In her writing, Shah attempts to illustrate the everyday lives and struggles of those affected by the West’s capitalistic exploits in the developing world. Her works integrate public health and social medicine, a field that seeks to combat disease through examining illness-generating social conditions. In her unique style, she moves beyond simply depicting the age-old human struggle against disease, but shows the lasting effects pandemics have had on shaping human reactions to sickness, and thus changing society as a whole. Through her books, she provides a new perspective on some of humankind’s unsung heroes: obscure, under-financed scientists making breakthroughs on malaria, and impoverished patients, fueled by their desire to survive and an increasing demand from the “drug-marinated West”, willing to surrender themselves to experimentation. While Shah condemns many of the oppressive side-effects of capitalism, an overarching theme in her writing is the ensnarement of society in a necessary, self-created, and self-enforcing evil: the abandonment of coal for crude oil, followed by increasing dependence on fossil fuels, human destruction of their environment and own well-being for the sake of “development”, and sacrificing lives of the world’s most under-served populations to combat diseases that kill without discrimination.


Sonia Shah at TEDMed 2014: Rethinking New Diseases

In her critically-acclaimed book, The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World’s Poorest People, an exposé backed by years of original research and reporting in Africa and Asia. She documents the exploitative practices of Western multinational drug companies in the developing world, examining a disturbing new global trend of exporting clinical trials to third world nations, where ethical oversight is minimal and the world’s poorest patients are faced with the decision of accepting their role as human experiments or dying from lack of treatment[2,3]. Additionally, Shah’s book, The Fever: How Malaria has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years, based on five years of chronicling the disease’s progression and impact on human lives in Cameroon, Malawi, India, and Panama was long listed for the Royal Society Winton Prize[4]. Her insights on the resilience behind this age-old disease has inspired her research on public health, discussed in her work, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, From Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, and has sparked discussion on rethinking the origins and responses to new diseases [5]. These works have spurred multiple TED talks from Shah herself, captivating audiences worldwide. She has also been cited in several fields in academia, from public health to medical ethics, showing that her writing has inspired a global dialogue, changing the world’s perceptions on diseases and international development.

Lastly, the creative work presented is a self-choreography inspired by one of Shah’s first works, Crude: The Story of Oil, also created into a controversial 2009 documentary where Shah provides several narrations herself. In this book, Shah provides a chronological narration of the rise and proliferation of crude oil. She delves into the silent effects oil has had on society, “newborn babies slide from their mothers into petro-plastic-gloved hands, are swaddled in petro-polyester blankets, and are hurried off to be warmed by oil-burning heaters” [6]. In the modern world today, every commodity, from produce to the clothes on our backs, is drenched in oil. Yet, the story of oil, which began as one of triumph and innovation, has turned to one of greed and bloodshed, leaving a quiet trail of oppression and destruction in its wake. Similar to her other works, Shah provides an in-depth analysis of the scientific, economic, political, and societal effects of this indispensable resource.

Creative work:

Works Cited

[1] “About Sonia.” Sonia Shah. Accessed September 12, 2016.

[2] Bard, Jennifer S. “Review of Sonia Shah. The Body Hunters: How the Drug Industry Tests Its Products on the World’s Poorest Patients.” May 19, 2008. Accessed September 12, 2016.

[3] Amulic, Borko. “Deadly Experiments: A Review of The Body Hunters | The Indypendent.” June 6, 2008. Accessed September 12, 2016.

[4] Carcamo, Carlos J., and Robert Matthews. “The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years.” February 1, 2012. Accessed September 12, 2016.

[5] Slater, Julie. “Rethinking New Diseases: Q&A with Sonia Shah.” September 03, 2015. Accessed September 12, 2016.

[6] Shah, Sonia. “Crude: The Story of Oil.” 2004. Accessed September 17, 2016.

[7] “How Unhealthy Paradigms Become Contagious.” Interview. (video blog), September 3, 2015. Accessed September 12, 2016.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s