Virus Ground Zero

The staff of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are the American shock troops in the fight against communicable diseases. Headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, and part of the United States Public Health Service, the CDC goes wherever it is needed around the world. In the Spring of 1995, the CDC was needed in Zaire. In Kikwit, a town in that country’s interior, there was an outbreak of Ebola, a viral fever with a fatality rate sometimes hitting 90 percent. Ebola is an awful disease, with its victims hemorrhaging to death. Ed Regis provides a lively account of the CDC response, obviously based on interviews with the participants. To place their heroic activities in context, he intermingles his report with a history of the CDC and a general discussion of the biology of viruses and viral infections.

There are two clear lessons to be learned from the events in Zaire and other localities with outbreaks of deadly viruses. First, ignore popular fictional accounts of such events. Stopping an outbreak of a killer virus is fairly easy. It is true that curing those who are already infected is not possible—nature must take its course—and that some of these viruses have high fatality rates. Yet preventing further infection is often simply a matter of erecting barriers, whether physical or antiseptic. Second, sadly, it is poverty which is the catalyst in these viral outbreaks. Wealthier nations have access to disinfectants, clean water, and enough needles and other supplies to allow their medical personnel to throw away contaminated material. Poor nations do not. These killer viruses are generally the companions of the poor, not the rich.