Richard Preston Essay

In October of l989, Macaque monkeys, housed at the Reston Primate Quarantine Unit in Reston, Virginia, began dying from a
mysterious disease at an alarming rate. The monkeys, imported from the
Philippines, were to be sold as laboratory animals. Twenty-nine of a
shipment of one hundred died within a month. Dan Dalgard, the
veterinarian who cared for the monkeys, feared they were dying from
Simian Hemorrhagic Fever, a disease lethal to monkeys but harmless to
humans. Dr. Dalgard decided to enlist the aid of the United States
Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) to
help diagnose the case. On November 28th, Dr. Peter Jahlring of the
Institute was in his lab testing a virus culture from the monkeys.
Much to his horror, the blood tested positive for the deadly Ebola
Zaire virus. Ebola Zaire is the most lethal of all strains of Ebola.

It is so lethal that nine out of ten of its victims die. Later, the
geniuses at USAMRIID found out that it wasn’t Zaire, but a new strain
of Ebola, which they named Ebola Reston. This was added to the list of
strains: Ebola Zaire, Ebola Sudan, and now, Reston. These are all
level-four hot viruses. That means there are no vaccines and there
are no cures for these killers.

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In 1976 Ebola climbed out of its primordial hiding place in
the jungles of Africa, and in two outbreaks in Zaire and Sudan wiped
out six hundred people. But the virus had never been seen outside of
Africa and the consequences of having the virus in a busy suburb of
Washington DC is too terrifying to contemplate. Theoretically, an
airborne strain of Ebola could emerge and circle the world in about
six weeks. Ebola virus victims usually “crash and bleed,” a military
term which literally means the virus attacks every organ of the body
and transforms every part of the body into a digested slime of virus
particles. A big point that Preston wanted to get across was the fact
that the public thinks that the HIV virus is quite possibly the most
horrible virus on Earth, when no one takes into mind the effects and
death of the victims of Ebola. Preston shows how Ebola and Marburg (a
close relative of Ebola) is one hundred times more contagious, one
hundred times as lethal, and one hundred times as fast as HIV. “Ebola
does in ten days what it takes HIV ten years to accomplish,” wrote
Richard Preston. The virus, though, has a hard time spreading, because
the victims usually die before contact with a widespread amount of
civilians. If there were to be another outbreak in North America, the
results would be unspeakable.

Upon reading The Hot Zone, one could easily believe that this
compelling yet terrifying story sprang from the imaginations of
Stephen King or Michael Crichton. But the frightening truth is that
the events actually occurred and that “could-be-catastrophe” was
avoided by the combined heroic efforts of various men and women from
USAMRIID and the Center for Disease Control. Preston writes
compassionately and admiringly of the doctors, virologists and
epidemiologists who are the real-life Indiana Jones’ of the virus
trail. Some like Dr. Joe McCormick, Karl Johnson, and CJ Peters spent
years tracking down deadly viruses in the jungles of South America and
Africa, some narrowly escaping death. Their work is filled with
courage, brilliance and sometimes petty rivalries. Others, like Dr.
Nancy Jaax have lived rather conventional lives, aside from the fact
that they don a space suit and work with highly lethal viruses on a
regular basis.
Preston has written a fast-paced and fascinating novel of
medical panic. His gripping narrative is filled with horrifying and
gore-filled descriptions and tension-building plot turns. From
depictions of events at a Belgian Hospital in Africa to the
nerve-racking laboratory scenes in Virginia, he is adept at keeping
the reader riveted. At the conclusion the reader is left with the
chilling and fact based haunting after thought “what if?”


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