The Hot Zone

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.

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17 Responses to The Hot Zone

  1. Lightheaded says:

    This is one scary book for me (I read it about a decade ago) moreso that it ended here in the Philippines with the knowledge of the strain’s presence in a local farm. I’ve always been fascinated by science (nurtured by comic visions as a kid of being a scientist in the future) so reading through this was like reading a crime. Technically it’s a crime, perpetrated by a virulent strain of virus.

    What scared me more was that while that incident occurred here, I don’t remember we (I mean we Filipinos) were actually appraised of the situation. At least publicly. Of course I understand the possible panic particularly with a new strain coming from a deadly virus. Still, it was far scarier to learn that after the fact. It was only much later, when a similar thing happened, when another cleanup crew arrived that the same made it to the newspapers.

    • Teresa says:

      I was surprised to read that the Reston lab continued to import monkeys from the same place in the Philippines, but knowing that, I’m not surprised that the word didn’t get out there for a while. I got the impression that the news reports here at the time downplayed the danger, although it did at least make the news. It certainly seems like it should have been as much of a story in the Philippines.

  2. Iris says:

    I’m sure this book would give me nightmares. I could barely handle reading your review: it made my body react with anxiety..

  3. Jeanne says:

    I agree that this is gripping, especially for non-fiction, which I hardly ever read. I also try to avoid disease-scare books. But this one really is worth reading.

  4. Emily says:

    Oh man, this sounds fascinating and suspenseful, but I would have to read it under cover of night because just the publisher’s blurb would send my partner into paroxysms of fear. He’s already waaaay freaked out by the idea of a rapidly-spreading virus; probably best to steer clear of this one. Maybe sometime when he’s out of town & I’m in the mood to freak myself out! :-)

    • Teresa says:

      This is definitely a book to read only when you’re ready to be freaked out. I’ve seen plenty of movies and read plenty of fiction about deadly viruses, and this was every bit as scary as those.

  5. Kathleen says:

    I’ve read this book twice, once when it first came out and again about a year or so ago. I have to say that the book scared me. It was sobering to realize how close we have come and really how close we are to having a major pandemic hit that could be devastating.

    • Teresa says:

      It gives me chills now to think about how many people I know lived or worked near that lab and could have been touched by the virus, never mind how quickly it could have spread beyond Reston, what with Dulles airport being just minutes away.

  6. Jenny says:

    I want to read this! Ever since reading And the Band Played On, I am curious to read more books about the spread of disease – although I suppose too many of them might make me paranoid. :p

    • Teresa says:

      I think it’s probably best to spread out the disease-scare books lest you become afraid to leave your house. Preston does touch on the AIDs virus, so it relates to And the Band Played On, which I haven’t read.

  7. This sounds like a really interesting book but I think it’s too scary for me! The fact that’s real makes it so much scarier. I remember the Ebola scare in the 90s. It makes me shiver.

  8. Christy says:

    This is exactly the kind of scary book I like to read. I’d heard about it before, but this just cements my desire to read it.

  9. Pingback: The Hot Zone by Richard Preston | A Good Stopping Point

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