October 16, 2014: News helicopters followed the ambulance that transported Nina Pham, the Texas nurse diagnosed with the Ebola virus, from the Frederick Municipal Airport to an isolation unit at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, MD. Escorted by police cars in front and back, the ambulance traveled south on I-270, a trip of about 40 minutes. It was a dark night, the countryside lit only by headlights from passing cars and the flashing lights from the ambulance and police escorts.
This was the same route taken by a SWAT team of U.S. soldiers, medical doctors, and scientists twenty-five years earlier. In November,1989, an elite group of men and women made their way from Fort Detrick, an Army research facility near Thurmont, MD, to a “Monkey House” in Reston, Virginia. Inside that building, a quarantine center for animals destined for laboratories, were over 500 monkeys that had been infected with the Ebola virus. The operation to destroy the monkeys, clean, disinfect, and fumigate the house, would take eighteen days.
It is a horrifying story, one that is recounted in Richard Preston’s book, The Hot Zone. Published in 1994, this New York Times Best Seller sold over two and a half million copies.
Preston’s accounts of the deaths of the Charles Monet and Dr. Shem Musoke in Nairobi in the early 1980s is as frightening as any science fiction tale. Yet they pale in comparison to what might have happened had the never-before-seen strain of Ebola in the quarantine facility not been contained.
Despite stories that appeared in the Washington Post and other newspapers, the public was largely unaware of the danger posed by this new outbreak.The crisis was handled so expertly by the team from Fort Detrick, surely we had nothing to worry about. Ebola was an African disease, and these monkeys had been imported from the Philippines. There had been outbreaks of Ebola in remote African villages, but they had quickly died out, or been brought under control.
On September 19th, 2014, Thomas Eric Duncan boarded a commercial airline that would take him from Liberia to Brussels. The next day he flew to Washington, then on to Dallas. When he stepped off the plane, he carried within him the deadly virus.
Throughout the book Preston notes the similarity between the AIDS virus and Ebola. Both appear to emerge from ecologically damaged parts of the earth, i.e., rain forests that are disturbed and/or destroyed. These places, he argues, are “the deep reservoirs of life on the planet…. When viruses come out of an ecosystem (where they have lived for hundreds if not thousands of years), they tend to spread in waves through the human population, like echoes from the dying biosphere.”
The AIDS virus, experts believe, emerged from the African rain forest in the 1970s, jumped species, and is still burning through the human population. Ebola was first documented in 1976 in remote villages in Central Africa near tropical rain forests. Since then, it has appeared in waves in Africa and elsewhere, though none of these flare-ups approached the magnitude and severity of the 2014 outbreak.
In The Hot Zone, Preston poses the question: Could our damaged earth be mounting an immune response to the human species? Do our slash and burn policies, our raping of natural resources, our belief in the value of the human species over all others presage a time when nature will find a way to bring back some semblance of balance to our planet?
Twenty years after its original publication, The Hot Zone is again a best-seller. The story Preston tells is as relevant today as it was in 1994. Like the canary carried into coal mines, Preston’s book is a warning of danger ahead.