Book Review: The Hot Zone

If you’re ever in a bit of a tricky situation, just think to yourself “at least I’m not elbow deep in Ebola-infected monkey blood with a hole in my glove.” This is one of the many tricky situations encountered by Nancy Jaax, one of the brave (some would say unhinged) Ebola researchers that Robert Preston follows in his book The Hot Zone.

The Hot Zone is not a book for the faint hearted. But if you’re looking for a gripping page-turner that will actually teach you a lot about the control of pandemics and virology in general then this book is for you. Just don’t read it around meal times.

The book centres around the now-infamous Ebola virus, and how perilously close we came to a full-scale outbreak of the disease near Washington in 1989. The tale takes place in a monkey house on the outskirts of D.C, in which the monkeys begin to behave strangely and die in mysterious circumstances. From this seemingly innocuous beginning, the situation spirals out of control and before long the relevant authorities are scrambling to prevent one of the most lethal pathogens on earth from running riot on Capitol Hill.

Preston is a master at punctuating the narrative with interesting – and more often than not, terrifying – snippets of information about various aspects of the virus. The staggering amount of background research that clearly went into the book makes it an informative as well as entertaining read.

There are plenty of gut-wrenchingly horrifying scenes in the book, but two in particular stand out, and will be difficult to forget in a hurry. The first is near the beginning of the narrative and involves the unfortunate (and short-lived) protagonist – a Frenchman working at a sugar plantation in Kenya – experiencing the full wrath of the Ebola virus in the confines of an aeroplane cabin. When it comes to describing the symptoms of the disease it would be an understatement to simply say that Preston ‘does not hold back’. Here are a few choice phrases from the incident on the plane to whet your appetite (definitely an inappropriate turn of phrase):

“The connective tissue in his face is dissolving, and his face appears to hang visibly from the underlying bone,as if the face is detaching itself from the skull.”

“The sick bag fills to the brim with a substance known as vomito negro, or the black vomit. The vomit is not really black; it is a speckled liquid of two colours, black and red, a stew of tarry granules mixed with fresh red arterial blood.”

Lovely.

Preston uses stories like this one to build up a terrifying image of the virus and, by describing the unthinkable process of a ‘bleed out’ taking place on a plane, ensures readers can relate to and thus fully appreciate the horror of the predicament.

After initially focusing on the origins of Ebola in Africa, the spotlight is then swiveled across to the US and a military base in which the virus is studied. It is here that the most page-turningly horrifying  passage in the book is set. This is the hole-in-the-glove scenario that I mentioned earlier, and Preston does an impressive job in wringing every last drop of sheer terror from this nightmarish scenario, leaving the reader a quivering wreck.

An aspect of the threat-response that is often overlooked but which Preston reports incredibly well is the struggle for power among the top organisations. The conflicts that took place between the army disease unit and the federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are laid out in their bitter entirety, and the resulting squabbles are made unflinchingly apparent.

This is the reason why Preston’s account of the events at Reston is such a great, multidimensional read. Not only does he detail the key events involved in the progression of a pandemic, but through painstaking research he has unearthed the political struggles and consequent setbacks that ground the tale in grim reality.

This book proves that pandemic threats can come from the most unexpected of sources and, although the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa has (thankfully) dwindled, there is a genuine need for continuous vigilance.

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