Ebola's deadly past and future

Ebola is now part of our daily lives, inescapable in headlines and on TV, in conversations and nightmares.

But it has been part of my life for 20 years, coming at me in the pages of a book titled "The Hot Zone" and then in the presence of the author of that book, Richard Preston. At a restaurant near the Tribune Tower in October 1994, Preston said this: "It is likely that (Ebola) could be a slate wiper. It could wipe out a vast portion of humanity. It kills 9 out of 10 people who contract it. And Ebola does in 10 days what it takes AIDS 10 years to accomplish."

I remember that well, have ever since, but I cannot remember now if Preston and I even ordered lunch as we talked about his book, which is the frightening true story of a 1980 emergence of Ebola (and its not-quite-so-deadly cousin Marburg) in the African rain forest and how a strain of the virus made its way to the U.S. in 1989.

Ebola is named for a river in Zaire and it came here in a group of monkeys imported for laboratory research. In a primate quarantine unit in Reston, Va., only 10 miles from Washington, the monkeys started to get sick and die. The monkey house became a "hot zone," the name for an area that contains infectious organisms. There are four levels of hot zones, the hottest being Level 4. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is a Level 2. The primate unit in Reston was a Level 4. A team of soldiers and scientists was quickly organized and, wearing biohazard spacesuits, entered the Reston facility where, over 18 harrowing days, they put to death nearly 500 monkeys and decontaminated the facility.

The strain of Ebola encountered in Virginia, dubbed Ebola Reston, does not attack humans. But no one knew that going in, and one couldn't help being impressed by the courage of people such as Nancy and Jerry Jaax, married Army colonels and key players in the Reston operation; Dr. Eugene Johnson, a civilian virus hunter and specialist in Ebola; and the soldiers, some of them teenagers.
"All of these people were making seat-of-the-pants decisions in the face of death," Preston said.

Isn't that just what we seem to be doing today?

Twenty years ago, Preston was carrying with him a contraption that looked very much like the high-tech masks employed by those who deal with deadly viruses, the sort of things that are visually peppering TV news.

"Don't be alarmed. It's just a prop," he said. "I find it useful for TV interviews."

There are interviews aplenty filling the airwaves now and speculation aplenty, all of it fueling our fears.

You want fear? Read "The Hot Zone," which begins with a person named Charles Monet, whose quick physical decline Preston vividly re-creates. Seven days after returning from a vacation at a place called Kitum Cave on Mount Elgon on the Uganda-Kenya border, Monet began to get sick. In the cave, by means that remain a mystery, he had contracted the Marburg virus, the Ebola cousin: "(Monet) appears to be holding himself rigid, as if any movement would rupture something inside him. His blood is clotting up — his bloodstream is throwing clots, and the clots are lodging everywhere. His liver, kidneys, lungs, hands, feet and head are becoming jammed with blood clots. In effect, he is having a stroke through his whole body. ... He is becoming an automaton. Tiny spots in his brain are liquefying."

Monet's life ends when, as Preston writes, "pools of blood spread out around him, enlarging rapidly. Having destroyed its host, the agent (virus) is now coming out of every orifice, and is 'trying' to find a new host."

Little wonder that Stephen King, who knows something about horror, wrote that Preston's first chapter is "one of the most horrifying things I've read in my whole life."

"The Hot Zone" would hit the top of the best-seller lists. Preston would go on to write more books. I would remain ever haunted by the book and the man and the headline that appeared above the Oct. 16, 1994, story I wrote for this paper: "WILL THIS VIRUS BE THE END OF MANKIND? THE TALE OF EBOLA IS THE WORST KIND OF HORROR STORY — IT'S TRUE."

Last week I reread that story and the book and in the book found these controversial words: "The emergence of AIDS, Ebola and any number of rain forest agents (viruses) appears to be a natural consequence of the ruin of the tropical biosphere. ... Perhaps the biosphere does not 'like' the idea of 5 billion humans (here). ... The Earth's immune system, so to speak, has recognized the presence of the human species and is starting to kick in. The Earth is attempting to rid itself of an infection by the human parasite."

There was only paltry news coverage when the story — the killing of the Ebola-infected monkeys in Virginia — at the center of Preston's book took place. He had seen a small item about it in The New York Times, which he used as the basis for his 22,000-word story for The New Yorker, which he then expanded into the book.

When he wrote it, he lived with his wife and three small children, and another on the way, in New Jersey.

"I worry about their future and the kind of world they will exist in. Not until I had children did I understand how dangerous the world is," he said 20 years ago. "Since the book was finished, I have heard that there was an outbreak of Ebola among monkeys at a lab in Italy. And I have no doubt that it has killed some more people in Africa. We just haven't heard about it. We will, sooner or later."

Later, regrettable, is now.

Rick Kogan is a Chicago Tribune writer. "After Hours With Rick Kogan" airs 9 to 11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.

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