Thursday, August 30, 2012

What I'm Reading Now-The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story

The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston--As a good/terrifying follow-up the The Stand, I decided to pick up a book about viruses, viruses that can spread rapidly and kill you horribly. Good times.

Hey, so does everyone remember, back in the late '80s, when the Ebola virus broke out in a monkey facility in Reston, Virginia, right near our nation's capitol, and there was some concern that it might get out and burn through the population with a kill rate of up to 90%? No? Yeah, me neither, and it's a good thing too. (Or maybe ya'll do remember, and I just didn't pay attention because I was too young to be sufficiently scared.) The fact that it went largely unnoticed by the public (or, at least, by me) is probably because it didn't get out of control and kill everyone in its path, but not for lack of opportunity. Basically, the people involved just got lucky. (Quick little note here: If you ever have a piece of monkey spleen that you think might be contaminated with some kind of horrible virus, and you want to send it to somebody in a lab, just be aware that they frown upon receiving samples that are A) "wrapped in aluminum foil, like pieces of leftover hot dog" and B) packed in ice which is beginning to drip and melt and run red with melty, potentially-virusy monkey blood.)

If you can handle all the gory details, and I mean gory--the details in here are not for the faint of heart--this is a really interesting read about viruses, the fascinatingly horrific effects they can have on people (and animals), and on biocontainment procedures.  I know that sounds really dry, but it's not. This is an account of what goes down when the higher-ups go, "Oh, sh*t." 'Cause you know it's bad when the higher-ups go, "Oh, sh*t." Also, there are cave elephants.** (Honestly, this is what finally made me reserve the book at my library.)

According to the book, The United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) "conducts research into ways to protect soldiers against biological weapons and natural infectious diseases. It specializes in drugs, vaccines, and biocontainment." The Ebola virus is one of the viruses that the folks at USAMRIID work with, and the people who work with it are generally considered a little crazy; the general consensus seems to be, "To mess around with Ebola is an easy way to die. Better to work with something safer, such as anthrax."

When anthrax is your "safer" bet, you know you're playing with something scary. Contaminated primate meat is often thought to be the originating source of Ebola infection in humans, but the virus's origins are still unknown. Where did the primates get it? Marburg virus is related to Ebola and similar in its effects. Today, fruit bats are thought to be a reservoir host for Marburg virus, but in 1994, when the book was written, this wasn't known. Reading about the unsuccessful efforts to track down these viruses' origins and seeing how they evolved over time before presumably disappearing back into the jungle, waiting to reemerge, is frightening even today.

These viruses spread and multiply quickly. As of the writing of this book, there were three known strains of Ebola; today there are five. Ebola Zaire tends to be highly lethal in humans; Ebola Reston seems to have no symptoms in humans, yet, according to the book, experts can't really discern any genetic difference. The idea that a virus can shift so dramatically and yet unnoticeably was played out against the backdrop of AIDS, which had been spreading rapidly and inexplicably and was only just beginning to be understood by science. The idea that the virus behind this deadly disease could mutate at any time and become something even worse is lurking in the background throughout the book. The implications are just as scary today*** with the recent SARS, bird flu, and swine flu outbreaks, not to mention the plain old regular flu, and the fact that things like hantavirus, the plague (this is why fleas are NOT OK, people!) and Ebola still rear their ugly heads from time to time.

I said earlier that the cave elephants are what finally made me read this book, and that's true, but it had been on my radar for a while because of the author, Richard Preston. Preston is also the author of The Wild Trees, which, if you've been a long-time reader, you will remember was the book that was responsible for all of our grand tree climbing adventures. Now, I'm not about to go sign up to become a Biohazard Level-4 worker after reading this book, but I did enjoy it. I was in turns horrified by facts (blood comes out of every orifice?), shocked by behaviors (Really? You thought it would be a good idea to smell the potentially lethal virus culture to see if your sample had been contaminated??), and just plain interested in what I was reading, all the while hoping that my book wasn't covered in Ebola spread by some carelessly wrapped monkey spleen.

**The cave elephants play a pretty minor role, so don't get too excited about this part.

***Edited to add: Yikes! See what I mean? I haven't even had this published for half-an-hour, when I saw this article about a snake virus that might be a cross between Ebola and something else.


Mike Frighetto said...

I remember when this book was out. I almost read it back then, but I think the slightly (okay, maybe more than slightly) more current germophobe me couldn't read this book and still ever leave the house. Without some sort of plastic bubble, that is. :)

But, I'm glad you liked it!

Dreamybee said...

LOL-Yeah, this might not be a good choice for a germophobe!

Wendy said...

Though this stuff is really interesting, not for me - germaphobe here!

Dreamybee said...

Wendy-I hope you didn't click on all of my links. You might not ever be able to leave the house again. (Sorry!)

Jay at The Depp Effect said...

I remember when some idiot in Birmingham (England) allowed some Smallpox to escape and infect people in the 1970's. They got REALLY lucky with that one. Only two people died, I think.

Why, when Smallpox has been eradicated in the world's population, people insist on keeping the viruses 'to study' is beyond me.

Dreamybee said...

Jay-Whoa, that's crazy! Yeah, keeping viruses around to study is a tricky one-why risk bringing back something that's been eradicated; but, then again, maybe by studying an "extinct" virus, you could learn something about a new threat...arguments to be made all round.