The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
This nonfiction thriller opens with the story of “Charles Monet,” a Frenchman in Western Kenya who contracts Marburg’s Disease after a visit to Mt. Elgan (between Uganda and Kenya)—a “biological island of rain forest.” Marburg is a level four biosafety hazard, which means that anyone coming in contact with it should wear a spacesuit. There is no known cure for level four biosafety diseases. Marburg kills one of four people who catch it.
Another man in Kenya, called Monet, doesn’t know what’s wrong with him—no one knows what’s wrong with him. So he is sent to a private hospital in Nairobi. To get there, he has contact with many friends and coworkers, flies on Kenya Airways, and takes a cab. He could easily infect anyone he comes in contact with. The fact that he is very sick on the plane, vomiting blood, means that his Marburg could spread anywhere in the world within 24 hours. This is a disease that can be caught even from a cadaver. Anyone catching it has the chance of dying an excruciating death as Marburg attempts to turn the host into itself and liquefies a person’s insides. Its effects on the brain are similar to the effects of rabies. The author describes this as the ‘who’ dying before the ‘what’ of a person.
A Dr. Musoko cares for Monet and catches the disease when Monet vomits a particle into his eye.
The story switches to that of Nancy and Jerry Jaxx. They are veterinarians working for the army. Nancy has a chance to work with Ebola—another level four biohazard—and does, against her husband’s wishes. Suspense is built when Nancy realizes that she has a tear in her spacesuit as well as her glove, which is covered in Ebola-laced blood.
Even the ensuing scientific discussion of Ebola and Marburg works in the element of suspense. Ebola is more terrible than Marburg. It kills nine out of ten people who catch it, and again, there is no vaccine and no cure. “From the moment Ebola enters your bloodstream, the war is already lost . . . .Ebola does in ten days what it takes AIDS ten years to accomplish.” Scientists who have seen it call it a ‘slate-wiper.’ The best thing about Ebola is that it kills people so fast, it has little time to infect others. It can move from the dead to the living. African mourners who have kissed the dead bodies of relatives have caught it. Hospital personnel have caught it by being in the room with someone in their death seizures—blood pours from all orifices and the spasms cause it to be splashed about the room. Yet, when villages were far apart and travel through Africa difficult, Ebola didn’t spread easily outside of a village. Now that anyone can go anywhere quickly, including across the world, the hazard is all the more terrifying.
After frightening the wits out of the reader about Ebola, the book moves on to Reston, Virginia where there was an Ebola outbreak at the Hazelton Research Products ‘monkeyhouse’ in 1989. Hazelton imported and sold monkeys for scientific research. Yet, no one thinks of an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. Everyone assumes it’s a disease that is very deadly to monkeys but harmless to humans (Simian Hemorrhagic Fever). Monkey spleen samples sent to the Center of Disease Control are handled as harmless—scientists even run their hands over them.
Oops. Workers at the monkeyhouse are getting sick. Enter the U. S. Army and the bio-hazard suits.
High school housekeeping: Considering the recent outbreaks of Ebola and the fact that the disease has traveled to the U.S., I think The Hot Zone is the perfect book for this Throwback Thursday. This is a great choice when looking for adult-level nonfiction because it reads like a suspense thriller. I think Stephen King was telling the truth when he said that even he found it scarier than a horror story.