Richard Preston’s “The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story” has sat on my shelf for the past 20 years. And though I haven’t cracked it since reading it last in 1994, I knew exactly what I would find when I opened the book again Friday: that horrendous description of the death of a Frenchman whom Preston calls Charles Monet, a worker at the Nzoia Sugar Factory.
Monet had been exploring in the bat guano- and elephant-dung-caked caves of Western Kenya. He came down with a mysterious illness that started with “a throbbing pain behind his eyeballs” and quickly got worse: headache, fever, violent nausea, facial paralysis. “His face lost all appearance of life and set itself into an expressionless mask, with the eyeballs fixed, paralytic, and staring. The eyelids were slightly droopy, which gave him a peculiar appearance … the eyeballs themselves seemed almost frozen in their sockets, and they turned bright red.”
It gets worse. Breakfast spoiler alert: If you’re reading this over your poached egg and don’t want stark descriptions of a truly hideous disease, set this aside for later.
As Monet, dying of the Ebola virus, climbs aboard a Kenyan Airways flight, Preston pauses to point out something on the minds of many Americans right now:
“A hot virus from the rain forest lives within a twenty-four-hour plane flight from every city on earth … Once a virus hits the net, it can shoot anywhere in a day — Paris, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles.”
Or Texas, where a Liberian national who helped move a dying Ebola victim there returned with the hemorrhagic fever coursing through his blood and now clings to life.
Or Chicago, now girding for the worst.
“It is terrifying,” agreed Dr. Michael Vernon, director of communicable disease control for the Cook County Department of Public Health, which put out an alert to its 20 suburban hospitals to be on the lookout for Ebola. The city also is preparing. Vernon said it is “quite likely” that Ebola will arrive here the same way it arrived in Texas.
“It is likely,” he said. “What we’re doing is trying to be as prepared as possible.” The Centers for Disease Control already operates a quarantine station at O’Hare, and that would receive any international air travelers or passengers from cargo ships.
In the mid-1990s, Ebola was considered exotic, more the stuff of Hollywood thrillers than a real public risk, its “grotesque symptoms” having “triggered far more melodrama than disease,” according to Wayne Biddle in his 1995 “A Field Guide to Germs.”
That attitude ended in the spring, when an outbreak in West Africa began and has infected 7,000 people so far. Half died.
What is Ebola? One of two known filoviruses. (A virus is a clump of genetic material so small that there are viruses that infect bacteria). It came to world awareness in 1976 in what was then Zaire, striking villagers with astounding lethality — of 358 people to come down with Ebola, named for the nearby Ebola River, 325 died.
Symptoms appear 4 to 16 days after infection: fever, rash, bleeding from every orifice or break in the skin, psychosis. Death follows in a week or two. There is no cure, but the good news is, it’s hard to catch. “There’s a lot of confusion in the public,” Vernon said. “People think it’s airborne, when it’s not.”