Those who read the opening chapter of The Hot Zone may find it difficult to realize that what they are reading is not science fiction but documented scientific fact. Charles Monet, a fifty-six-year-old expatriate Frenchman living in western Kenya near the Nzoia River, is spending his Christmas vacation on Mount Elgon with a woman from nearby Eldoret.
On New Year’s morning of 1980, the pair wander into Kitum Cave, host at night to herds of elephants that come for the salt they can ferret out of its rocks, which they pulverize with their tusks. Monet and his friend spend the entire day exploring this huge, mysterious opening in the earth, home to bats, rats, and various other animals and insects.
Seven days later, Monet is racked with pain. His eyeballs and head ache so monumentally that he stays home from work. Aspirin does not relieve the headache. Soon Monet develops a throbbing backache as well. By the third day of his illness, he is running a fever and vomiting, finally bringing up no solids or fluids but continuing to have dry heaves. He sinks into an uncharacteristic passivity. His face becomes masklike; his eyelids droop. His eyeballs, looking ready to pop, redden; his skin yellows and develops red blotches.
When some of his fellow workers look in on him, it is apparent to them that he needs to be rushed to the hospital at Kisumu, on the shore of Lake Victoria. His illness baffles the physicians there, who give him antibiotics to no avail. They recommend that he go to Nairobi Hospital, the best medical facility in that part of Africa.
Although he is becoming increasingly ill, Monet boards a jammed Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi. During the flight, he becomes violently ill, vomiting into a sickness bag and coughing up a slimy red substance flecked with black spots similar to coffee grounds. Before long, his vomit is black. His body has been invaded by a filovirus more virulent and much faster-acting than the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) virus, whose incubation period can be as long as ten years.
Richard Preston’s descriptions and detail have a clarity reminiscent of the best writing of Lewis Thomas, Loren Eisley, or Barry Lopez. He explains simply but never condescendingly what a filovirus is and how it acts. He notes that one hundred million such viruses can fit into a space the size of the period at the end of a sentence. They are almost as old as Earth. Their primary purpose is to replicate themselves in the cells of their hosts. They can jump species, perhaps using insects, bats, or rats as hosts, but quickly moving to primates, including humans, when the need arises.
Viruses like those that consumed Monet had emerged in other places. In Marburg, Germany, thirteen years earlier, a man who cleaned monkey cages at the Behring Works, a vaccine factory, evidenced symptoms similar to Monet’s. Two weeks later he died. Thirty-one other people in or near Marburg contracted the virus. Seven of them died.
Before the plane lands, Monet’s blood is clotting in all of his organs and in his intestines. He is bleeding from every orifice, and with the blood come huge amounts of tissue from his tongue and his intestines. Because his brain is being compromised by the clotting, he feels little pain.
Still ambulatory, although barely so, Monet stumbles to a taxicab outside Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and mumbles, “Nairobi . . . Hospital.” Once at the hospital, Monet, now bleeding profusely through the mouth, nose, eyes, gums, nipples, and anus, is attended by Dr. Shem Musoke, who is soon soaked with Monet’s virus-laden blood. A blood transfusion does Monet no good. He slips into a coma and dies. It is January 15.
Nine days later, Musoke begins to have the symptoms that presaged Monet’s illness. He goes through most of the stages of Monet’s illness, but somehow survives. An autopsy has revealed that Monet’s major organs were affected, that his liver had ceased working days before his death, and that his kidneys had failed. Some of his organs, including his liver, had begun to liquefy, as had much of his body tissue.
Such is the beginning of The Hot Zone. Preston presents this gripping case study in vivid detail that recalls some of the most nightmarish paintings of Hieronymus Bosch or Gustave Doré’s depictions of the lower circles of the Inferno about which Dante Alighieri wrote. The immediacy of Preston’s prose evokes a gruesome horror reminiscent of the more extreme...