Coincidentally, my bedtime reading this last couple of weeks has been The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. I say coincidentally, because of the recent reports of a new Ebola outbreak in west Africa. The book, written in 1994, is a true account of the time that Ebola infected a monkey house within a few miles of the White House in the United States.
Preston takes the reader deep into western Kenya to Mount Elgon around 1979 with Charles Monet, to explore Kitum Cave, a favoured destination for mammals, reptiles, bats and insects over many millennia. Seven days after his visit, Monet feels unwell and we are treated to a vivid description of what dying from Ebola is like. To make sure we understand the horrors of death by a filovirus, Preston continues to present cases and uses these as a vehicle to describe the science behind Ebola. He makes a good job of this, and never was I left feeling as though I needed a PhD in infectious diseases to understand what he was saying.
1983 sees the USAMRIID make an entrance, the US institute responsible for safeguarding against biological weapons and disease. They are involved in carrying out experiments to create protection against diseases such as the Ebola virus.
Preston moves back and forth between the institute and the African rain forests describing more terrifying cases as he goes. You would think by now the book would have become repetitive, but it didn’t seem like that to me. I just felt as though something bad was building.
Suddenly, we are taken to a monkey house in Reston, Virginia, and the ‘something bad’ became apparent. A new consignment of monkeys is flown into JFK International Airport from south-east Asia. We are still not halfway into Preston’s work, but we know enough to work out that these monkeys are going to get sick. This is where the book became a page-turner for me, the reason behind a few very late nights.
I guess the ending is predictable, although strangely the final part of the book, which takes us back to Kitum Cave, appears to take on a different genre. We are treated to sensory descriptions, mental imagery and artistic metaphor. Sufficient to give me goose-bumps, anyway.
After reading this book, you will be in no doubt that should Ebola wriggle its way into city populations that we will all be in trouble Deep trouble.
The Hot Zone? A chiller, for sure.