Preston’s Hot Zone
Imagine walking into a tiny village in Africa, suffering and dying from some unknown virus. As you approach the huts you hear the wails of pure agony from the afflicted tribe members. Coming closer, you smell the stench of vomit mixed with the bitter smell of warm blood. People inside lay dying in pools of their own vital fluids, coughing and vomiting up their own liquefied internal organs; their faces emotionless masks loosely hanging from their skulls, the connective tissue and collagen in their bodies turned to mush. Their skin bubbled up into a sea of tiny white blisters and spontaneous rips occurring at the slightest touch, pouring blood that refuses to coagulate. Hemmorging and massive clotting underneath the skin causing black and blue bruises all over the body. Their mouths bleeding around their teeth from hemorrhaging saliva glands and the sloughing off of their own tongues, throat lining, and wind pipe, crying tears of pure blood from hemorrhaging tear ducts and the disintegration of the eyeball lining and bleeding from every opening on the body. You see the blood spattered room and pools of black vomit, expelled during the epileptic convulsions that accompany the last stages of death. Their hearts have bled into themselves, heart muscles softened and hemorrhaging , the brain clogged with dead blood cells (sludging of the brain), the liver bulging and yellow with deep cracks and the spleen a single hard blood clot. Babies with bloody noses born with red eyes lay dead from spontaneous abortions of affected mothers. It is the human slate-wiper, the invisible ultimate death, the filovirus named Ebola.
The theme of Richard Preston’s Hot Zone seems deal with man’s one predator, the invisible one, the one thing that man cannot seek out and conquer, the one that lurks unseen and undetected in the shadows waiting for a warm body to make its new breeding ground in, with total disregard for person, social class, or status. We are “meat”, as the biologists at the USAMRIID Institute stated, no names, no faces, no “individuality”, the virus rips through our bodies with no thought, mechanical reproducers who sabotage our cells and used them as incubators until their “offspring” replicate to the point the cell wall bursts, releasing hundreds of new virus particles. Literally thousands of these “killers”, as humans see them can be held on the point of an ink pen. The question the book seems to raise later on, however, is who is the real impostor; the virus on the human race, or the human race on its home for the past millions of years, the rain forests. Are Ebola, and the other filoviruses, antibodies against the “human virus” that is swiftly and thoughtlessly destroying Mother Earth? Are these viruses the “check” on the human K-species that we have been expecting?
For the most part, the characters of this book have the utmost respect for all Level 4 viruses, especially the greatly feared and most deadly Ebola Zaire (killing 90% of those infected). Handling viral samples, infected animals and blood samples as if they were nuclear weapons, that if detonated, would ultimately result in total carnage. They were all right in doing so, all having witnessed the gruesome effects on living organisms on one primate or another.
Gene Johnson, the civilian virus hunter working for the army who specialized in Ebola, perhaps showed the most fear and total respect for its destructive capabilities and unpredictable nature. Having visited Africa, researching, studying, and actually staring the virus in the face, Gene knew the virus all to well. In the winter of 1989, the foreigner made its first appearance on the North American continent via an infected monkey who been shipped here from the Philippines. An “unknown virus” was sweeping through a monkey house in West Virginia, first noticed by some runny noses and loss of appetite, ending a few days later with death; bloody noses, swollen livers, and enlarged spleens. First perceived to be Marburg, one of the filovirus sisters, it was later revealed to actually be the more lethal Ebola. An operation was organized to nuke the monkey house, to destroy the virus, along with every living thing inside; every monkey was assumed a carrier. Of all the people involved in the Reston operation, Gene Johnson was actually the most fearful; due to his in depth knowledge of the killer. He knew the possibilities if the virus were to escape the monkey house, through an air duct or walk out inside the body of one of the animal caretakers. He knew that if the virus was airborne, which was what they were finding evidence of, the virus could circle the whole entire earth, wiping out large populations in a matter of days. He didn’t sleep for days during the operation, perhaps out of sheer terror of the idea of an outbreak right here in our own homeland (or in the human race at all for that matter). The effects could rival those of the Bubonic plague if the virus were to go airborne.
Dan Dalgard, the veterinarian at the Reston monkey house, however, was on the other end of the spectrum. Dalgard had perceived the virus he was witnessing in his monkeys to be Simian Fever, one harmless to humans. After getting the word from USAMRIID that he may actually be dealing with Marburg, a filovirus lethal in humans, Dalgard was a frightened. He’d heard about the effects of Marburg on the human body, not only would he loose his monkeys, but also he was putting himself and his employees at risk. When he later received a call from the Institute stating that he may actually have a monkey house infected with Ebola, unlike Johnson, he knew nothing about this virus! He’d thought Ebola to be no more dangerous than Marburg. Dalgard did not fully realize the agent he was dealing with. He knew nothing of the “crashing and bleeding out”, or liquefying of the internal organs to the extent that the elder sister Ebola Zaire caused. Dalgard left his employees to carry on working in the environment, one perceived to be as “hot” as a Level 4 lab at the Institute by the Army unknowingly. When the Army was in the process of nuking the building, wearing their space suits and air filtering devices, Dan walked in with nothing more than a surgeons mask on!
Another character, however, who had had close contact (almost too close at one point) was Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Jaax. She, along with Peter Jharling (the codiscoverer of the new strain of Ebola in the Reston monkey house, which was actually found not to be damaging to humans) and Gene Johnson had worked in Level 4 labs at the Institute on numerous occasions. Nancy, at first, seemed to be enthralled by the idea of holding a deadly agent in the palm of her hand. Only a few layers of rubber and latex separated the hot zone of the lab from the inner safety of her space suit. However, it wasn’t until the Reston incident that Nancy fully understood the potential biological disaster that unseen agent could cause. Nancy, and her husband Jerry, head over the 91-Tangos who were responsible for nuking the building, were so dedicated to preventing the leak of this killer into the outside world that she passed up being with her own father on his death bed. She sacrificed being with her dying family member to potentially save the human race.
Last, there was the character of Dr. Joseph B. McCormick, chief of the Special Pathogens Branch of the C.D.C., who perhaps, in a sense, personifies the human race’s attitudes toward nature. McCormick, like Gene Johnson, had been to Africa and treated patients suffering from Ebola in Sudan. He had spent days on end inside the blood-spattered huts, breathing the smell of warm blood, blood infested with Ebola viruses and was never, himself, infected. At one point, he had even been trying to give a woman a shot, and she convulsed, causing him to stick himself with a bloody needle. Lucky for him, however, she was only suffering from malaria. McCormick was a little boastful about the situation and informed everyone that Ebola was not as contagious as they had thought because, after all, he hadn’t caught it in his many days in the infected village. He gave the impression of invincibility, humans are superior maybe. He showed no respect for Nature’s destructiveness (and perhaps even her wrath). Ebola, the human slatewiper as Johnson called it, was nothing more than dealing with any other virus to McCormick. It leaves one to think that Mother Nature will have her revenge on those who make a mockery of her as he does, perhaps the human race, as well, which is destroying the very loins that gave birth to us, the African rain forest.
Ebola is a deadly virus to humans and primates, and its origin has yet to be uncovered. There is no cure for any of the Ebola sisters: Ebola Zaire, Ebola Sudan, Marburg, and the most recent Ebola Reston because of their mutation ability. As for there being a solution to the problem, it may lay in the reduction in human interference in nature and destruction of our own universe or perhaps the end of the species that has become such a nuisance to Nature. Scientists, perhaps, should make developers and loggers aware of such consequences, before its too late. There is no Ebola epidemic at the moment, but as the book said, it hasn’t gone away, its just retreated into the shadows, lying dormantly there, for now.