Richard Preston reminds us why it’s important we continue to be educated about the ebola virus.
My 1994 nonfiction book about Ebola virus, “The Hot Zone,” frightened a lot of readers with its story of an outbreak of Ebola in a monkey house in suburban Washington, D.C. After more than two decades in development, National Geographic was finally able to bring the book to life as a limited series, with a top-notch cast, including the amazing Julianna Margulies as Army space suit scientist Nancy Jaax. The series gave the network huge ratings, and critics said it was “terrifying,” “a horror show” and “a scary, absorbing thriller you won’t easily forget.” But what’s so scary about Ebola? Why does a nearly unnoticed incident involving some sick monkeys decades ago seem important today?
Ebola virus is one of a large class of previously unseen, exotic, lethal viruses that are jumping out of earth’s natural ecosystems and invading humans. It seems to be happening because wild forests and natural habitats are being disturbed and broken apart, earth’s climate is changing and the human population is getting increasingly crowded into gigantic supercities, where millions of people are in close contact with one another and can spread an infectious agent explosively. The situation is a kind of silent biological crisis for the human species as a whole.
The last sentence of my book was a prediction about Ebola: “It will be back.” Ebola did come back — 19 times, in fact. Yet as the years went by, the vast majority of public health experts came to believe that Ebola would never be a serious problem. They asserted that the virus was easy to control and that it was so deadly that it “burned itself out” whenever it got into humans. Even so, Ebola kept coming back.
Then, in 2014, a hot (lethal) kind of Ebola emerged in a remote village in West Africa. This strain ultimately infected 30,000 victims in seven nations, killing more than 11,000. The virus also jumped continents, traveling in the bodies of air passengers, and got to Dallas and New York City. Right now, another new Ebola has emerged in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and has infected 2,000 people there. There’s now a vaccine for Ebola, but the Congo outbreak is not at all under control, and the virus has reached Uganda.
A new virus like Ebola tends to change as it passes from person to person. If Ebola becomes slightly more infective — a bit easier to catch — it could start spreading more rapidly and deeply. It could get into people who travel to cities anywhere. Whatever happens with Ebola in the future, today there is little doubt that it’s a serious threat.
To me, what’s most scary about Ebola is the fact that it’s just one of a number of exotic viruses that are coming out of nature and infecting humans, with ominous possibilities. Sars virus. Mers. Bas-Congo quasi-rabies. Nipah. SFTS virus. Lake Victoria Marburg. Ravn. Hendra. Avian flu. Zika. Australian bat lyssavirus. And others. In my view, the Nat Geo series is a teaching moment for the public and, I hope, for policymakers and national leadership. The new viruses aren’t a screenwriter’s fiction, they’re absolutely real and are truly, really scary. They will keep coming back. Not only that, a previously unknown virus could also appear and start spreading. We can deal with a weird virus, but only if we’re prepared. Right now, we aren’t.
Richard Preston is the author of the forthcoming “Crisis in the Red Zone” (Random House, July), the successor to “The Hot Zone.”
The Hot Zone is streaming on National Geographic