The Hot Zone, a true story that took place in the late 1980’s, is based upon an outbreak of the Ebola virus in a monkey house located in the Washington, D. C. suburb of Reston, Virginia. The story refelects the tales of several previous outbreaks in Africa to describe clearly the potential damage such an outbreak could cause. The first appearance of an Ebola-like virus takes place in Kenya and costs the life of a French expatriate named Charles Monet. His bloody, painful death is re-told in graphic and terrifying terms. Hospital personnel treating Monet become ill as well, demonstrating the extreme danger of exposure to this disease.
Throughout the first half of the book, several outbreaks and deaths are described. A highly infectious, deadly virus from the central African rainforest suddenly appears in the suburbs of Washington, D. C. however there is no cure. In a few days, 90% of its victims were dead. A secret military SWAT team of soldiers and scientists is mobilized to stop the outbreak of this exotic “hot virus”. This dramatic story gives a hair-raising account of the appearance of rare and lethal viruses and their “crashes” into the human race. The Hot Zone proves that truth really is scarier than fiction.
As The Hot Zone represents Richard Preston’s 1992 article, it explores a few filoviruses that fall under Biosafety Level 4. The danger of a Level 4 virus is that, once contracted, there is no way to treat the symptoms or cure the disease. Additionally, there are no known measures that can be taken to prevent one from getting infected. Preston covers some cases of infection and the lives that have succumbed to the viruses. He details how the victims were infected, as well as the progression of the virus in each one. He also touches on some of the unique cases that have occurred.
Fear of Death is probably the most prevalent theme in The Hot Zone as it reflects the humans’ fear of being diagnosed with the disease and later dying from it. In fact, the power and appeal of this book come from the fear evoked in the reader. The gory, horrific deaths of Charles Monet, Nurse Mayinga, and Peter Cardinal set the reader on edge in anticipation and dread of what will happen if the virus at Reston jumps into the human population. One of the obvious indicators of the fear is the setup of the Level 4 Hot Zones and the numerous procedures and policies in effect for anyone entering one.
The outside world is separated from the Hot Zone by a “gray area” that is considered neither sterile nor hot. The majority of The Hot Zone is written from the third-person omniscient point of view. Of course, the author is not simply composing characters’ thoughts and emotions. This book recounts a true story, and Richard Preston interviewed many, many people to learn directly from those involved. Therefore, the reason the author is able to be omniscient is because he has taken great pains to be accurate in his telling of the tale. If he describes someone’s internal reaction to an event, he is relating what that person told him.
He is also careful to give credence to everyone’s viewpoints in the cases where people have differing recollections of a sequence of events. However, it’s the background information of the true story that actually intrigues me. 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 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.