Back when I was in high school, one of my English teachers kept a small bookshelf with different books for us to read if we had nothing to occupy ourselves with. One day I started a book that I didn’t get to finish, but wished I had. I’ve been searching for this particular book off and on for years, but it’s hard to find a book when all you can remember is that the cover was white, and some guy on a plane literally exploded with Ebola. Not exactly the best description to go by!
Surprisingly enough, Dipper recognized the book by my description. He told me I was looking for The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. He also forewarned me that it wasn’t the greatest piece of literature he’d ever read, but if I was that interested that it had stayed with me, I might as well read it.
A couple weeks ago my job took me to a local hospital that isn’t within the usual system I work. One of the unspoken bonuses of working in hospital systems is that most of the gift shops offer a cart of used books for sale. I love used books! On this particular day I was lucky. I found In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté, MD, which is about addiction. It’s a relatively thick book and sounds really interesting. I have some small experience with addiction, as my aunt was a very dedicated alcoholic.
The other book was The Hot Zone. At long last, I had found it! Granted, it was a severely beaten copy, but for 50 cents and charity at a hospital, you simply can’t go wrong! I purchased both books, and since it was a Friday, I was able to finish my current read at home and begin The Hot Zone.
The Hot Zone started off pretty confusing, because there was much talk of Marburg as well as Ebola Zaire and Ebola Sudan. Until reading this book, I don’t believe I was ever fully aware that there were enough strains of Ebola for one to be considered worse than the other. I also had no idea where Marburg fit into the equation. As it turns out, they’re all filoviruses. Filoviruses look stringy under a microscope, and cause hemorrhaging in people and primates. They’re also called “the three sisters” because of how they are related in terms of structure and effect on a living body.
The first part of the book went into the differences in the filoviruses, as well as some information on how they were discovered. I found that extremely interesting, but since I wasn’t expecting it to cover the different viruses, I was lost a few times and had to backtrack. In retrospect, I’m really glad Preston covered the viruses in the beginning, because I also got used to terminology that he would use later. For instance, I had no idea that when sick with a hemorrhagic disease, a body is considered to “crash out” when it is so completely consumed by the virus that it basically collapses, turns to mush, and spreads the virus. Preston also does a really good job of explaining the different levels of clearance when working with viruses. Level 4 is the killer stuff – Ebola, Marburg, Lassa. In other words, the nasty shit.
After this run-through and backstory, The Hot Zone shifts it’s focus to Ebola Reston. This strain was discovered in Reston, Virginia in a building that housed monkeys used in research. I don’t want to ruin the whole book for any potential readers, but I will say this. Once the story hones in on Ebola Reston, it’s easy to see parallels between the story and the 1995 movie Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman, Renee Russo, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr, Kevin Spacey, and Donald Sutherland. (While I’m at it – it’s a super cheeseball movie but one of my favorites. I highly recommend that you watch it!)
There are some parts of The Hot Zone that are really confusing, and I would have preferred if Preston followed a chronological timeline for the viruses in the beginning, rather than skipping around. As someone not terribly familiar with these viruses, it made understanding their origins difficult. However, once Preston switched to Ebola Reston, I found the book much better written and easier to follow. The pace also picked up, making it a page-turner. I appreciate the fact that Preston conducted several interviews with the people involved in the outbreak of Reston, as well as the other filoviruses, because it gave the book an edge. Instead of guessing how people felt or what their motivations were, he had knowledge from the interviews.
Overall I liked The Hot Zone, and it’s spurred me into a serious kick. I have purchased several other books on Ebola, HIV, and other diseases. I am also on a binge for virus-themed movies. Be forewarned – there will be a bit of a sidetrack into the viral for the next few posts!