A man visits a cave on the border of Uganda and Kenya. Seven days later, he develops a headache that won’t go away. A few days later, his friends convince him to fly to Nairobi to get help at the hospital there. While on the plane, the man begins vomiting a black and red substance, and his nose begins to bleed. Upon landing, he takes a taxi right to the hospital. While in the waiting room, he begins vomiting again. Soon, he is venting blood from other orifices. The doctors cannot give him a blood transfusion because the veins keep breaking apart. By the morning, he is dead, his organs decayed and liquified. Nine days later, his doctor develops a backache that spreads throughout his body. This was the result of the Marburg virus.
In Maryland, a woman cuts her hand before going in to work one morning. Her job: to don a space suit and dissect animals infected with deadly viruses. When her hands are deep into a monkey infected with Ebola Zaire, her partner points to her glove, and she notices a tear. She hurries out of the Level 4 quarantine area where they are working, stripping off one layer of protection at a time, going through multiple decontamination procedures, all the time wondering if the glove closest to her cut hand has remained undamaged.
These are just two of the true incidents that Richard Preston shares in the early chapters of his 1994 book The Hot Zone. This book explores the world of the filoviruses, Ebola and Marburg, both of which are deadly to primates and can pass from monkeys to humans. The two incidents above are a prelude to a 1989 outbreak among a group of monkeys in a lab in Reston, Virginia, just outside Washington DC.
Although the 1989 outbreak is the focus of much of the book, Preston uses the stories of earlier scares to show just how high the stakes are. I knew before reading this that Ebola is a particularly nasty virus, but I had no idea just how nasty. Preston describes the course of the infection with gruesome clarity, giving ample information about how the virus does and does not spread—and about what scientists simply do not know.
Before the book even gets to the Reston incident, Preston has made it obvious that a filovirus could have devastating consequences if it were to infect the human population of a densely populated area, particularly one with quick and easy access to other areas. The story hit home for me in a big way because I used to work just a few miles from the Reston lab. Granted, I worked in the area long after that incident, but it was still chilling to imagine these illnesses in that place. And I was shocked at how easy it would be for exposure to happen and to spread to people outside the lab.
Preston writes in a journalistic style that is friendly to the general, non-science-oriented reader. There’s enough detail that I put down the book feeling like I learned some science, but there’s not so much technical jargon that I ever felt bogged down in it. A glossary of terms provides additional help, but I rarely needed it, as Preston does a good job of explaining and defining terms along the way. The character list was a bit more useful to me because I’m so terrible with names, and there would be three people with the last name of Johnson in this book.
Obviously, I knew going in that whatever did occur was limited enough in scope that massive infections of the general population never happened, but Preston still manages to build suspense. He introduces the people involved and provides enough information about them that I couldn’t help but worry about them as they donned their space suits and headed into Level 4 quarantines. I knew the virus didn’t wipe out all of Reston, but I certainly didn’t know if all the humans who tried to stop its spread stayed safe. Plus, Preston engages the reader’s imagination in considering what else might have happened, or what might happen next time. It’s scary stuff, and it made for absolutely gripping reading.