Remember the film Outbreak? A tiny monkey transports a deadly virus from Africa to the United States and all manner of chaos and death ensues. A multitude of ethical questions arise. Who deserves to be saved? What is the most effective way to stop the spread of a virus for which there is no vaccine? How many people need to be quarantined? Can experimental drugs be used? Should families be separated? Do we consider the option of eliminating a small number of people if we believe it is for the greater good? Can we abandon sick people to their fate? These decisions may save lives and stop the virus or become the cause of greater suffering.
The ensuing terror is the fear of the unknown. You can’t see the virus, but you can see what it is doing to the people who have the misfortune to be exposed to it. Medical staff are faced with daunting task of locating patient zero and finding everyone that came into contact with that person. Further detective work must be done in order to determine how the virus is being spread from one person to the next. Once the severity of the outbreak is known, the goal becomes containment.
In The Hot Zone, the reader learns that although there are a vast array of viruses in the world, many are not that easily contracted when precautions are taken. Problems arise when a virus displays symptoms that may be similar to other, less deadly diseases. Medical personnel may then become another source of exposure as they treat a series of patients with only basic medical precautions being taken. Through these avenues, a patient or medical staff may unwittingly expose a multitude of unsuspecting victims. Poor medical practices, such as reusing needles, further exacerbate these problems. Thus the hospital or clinic may no longer be a place of relief but rather becomes the epicenter of torment.
The author describes in horrifying detail what the Ebola virus (and its various strains) does to the human body. It is the stuff of nightmares. Ebola virus disease (EVD) was formerly known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever. The description of the victims’ suffering is unbelievable. Starting with a fever, headache, muscle and joint pain, the initial symptoms do not appear to be severe or life-threatening. However, as the virus progresses, unexplained visible bruising manifests on the patient’s body and internal and external bleeding grows increasingly worse. The patient becomes unresponsive and death follows as the body slowly shuts down.
Unlike medical thrillers such as Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, or Robin Cook’s Contagion, the scenario described in Richard Preston’s book is based upon an incident which occurred in the United States. It is a stomach-churning cautionary tale that strikes terror into the heart and mind of the reader. For it becomes clear very quickly that although medical technology has taken leaps and bounds since the last time Ebola visited our shores, we are not immune.