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CINEMA: Now Read the Book

3 minute read
Leon Jaroff

Several days after a victim contracts the virus, his eyes turn red and his head begins to ache. Red spots appear on his skin and, spreading quickly, become a rash of tiny blisters, and then the flesh rips. Blood begins to flow from every one of his body’s orifices. The victim coughs up black vomit, sloughing off parts of his tongue, throat and windpipe. His organs fill with blood and fail. He suffers seizures, splattering virus-saturated blood that can infect anyone nearby. Within a few days the victim dies, and as the virus destroys his remaining cells, much of his tissue actually liquefies.

Filmmakers may try, but no movie will match the real-life horror described in Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone (Random House; 302 pages; $23). The book, due in stores later this month, is an expanded version of the New Yorker article that sent Hollywood scrambling.

Writing with great flair, Preston introduces his readers to the terrors of the filovirus, a family of threadlike viruses found in the rain-forest regions of Central Africa. He describes a 1976 outbreak that spread through villages near the Ebola River in Zaire, killing as many as 90% of those infected. This so-called Ebola Zaire virus is the deadliest of the filoviruses, but its Ebola Sudan and Marburg kin, while not as deadly, cause equally horrible symptoms.

Such dangerous viruses may seem a distant mencace, but as a Yale researcher learned last week, accidents can happen. The Hot Zone details a 1989 Ebola crisis that occurred not in the forests of Afreica but in Reston, Virginia, only 15 miles from Washington. It all started at the Reston Primate Quarantine Unit, run by a company that imports and sells monkeys for use in research laboratories. When an unusual number of deaths were recorded among a shipment of monkeys that had recently arrived from the Philippines, tissue samples were sent to a U.S. Army research center.

There a technician identified the strands as either Ebola Zaire or something very close to it. Even more alarming, an incident at the Reston building seemed to confirm that this virus, unlike the African one, could be transmitted through the air. Franctic phone calls were made to Virginia health authorities and to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The Reston building was, in Army parlance, a “hot zone,” an area that contained lethal, infectious organisms. An Army team, wearing space suits, killed the 450 surviving monkeys by lethal injection, and the cadavers were place in plastic bags for disposal. Before the building was boarded up, the Army sterilized every square inch of the interior. Dcotors monitored employees and Army ( personnel who had been exposed to monkey blood. Eventually it became appparent that the Ebola Zaire strain at Reston was harmless to humans. Yet the virus is considered to be a continuing menace. “A tiny change in its genetic code,” Preston writes, “and it might zoom through the human race.”

In his view, the worst is yet to come. As the world’s population continues to grow, he writes, and human settlements and activity intrude farther into the rain forests, previously unknown viruses like HIV, Lassa, the filovirus and others are emerging to wreak their toll. In a rather mystical but ominous conclusion, Preston warns that “the rain forest has its own defenses…The earth’s immune system, so to speak, is starting to kick in…The earth is attempting to rid itself of an infection by the human parasite. Perhaps AIDS is the first step in a natural process of clearance.”

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