With in-depth research and excruciating detail, Preston makes clear that the spread of viruses like Ebola and HIV is often due to human error. Whether eating contaminated animal meat, spreading infections through sexual intercourse, building highways that become pathways for epidemics, or sticking themselves with infected needles, humans are constantly exposing themselves to devastating and destructive diseases. By focusing on the Ebola outbreak in Reston, Virginia—a peaceful and quiet suburban neighborhood—Preston makes clear how fragile everyday life really is, and how easily it could be wiped out by any number of emerging diseases. Even taking precautions—such as wearing spacesuits and gloves—does not provide a foolproof method of stopping infection. Spacesuits rip, oxygen runs out, and gloves can be punctured by syringes (or aggressive monkeys). In this context blood, too, becomes a powerful symbol of human fragility. Although blood ordinarily carries energy and nutrition, an infected person’s blood becomes a carrier of disease, and exposure to a single drop can mean contamination and even death.
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Human Error and Fragility Quotes in The Hot Zone
When you begin probing into the origins of AIDS and Marburg, light fails and things go dark, but you sense hidden connections. Both viruses seem part of a pattern.
Ebola has not yet made a decisive, irreversible breakthrough into the human race, but it seemed close to doing that. It had been emerging in microbreaks here and there in Africa. The worry was that a microbreak would develop into an unstoppable tidal wave. If the virus killed nine out of ten people it infected, and there was no vaccine or cure for it, you could see the possibilities. The possibilities were global.
They were two human primates carrying another primate. One was the master of the earth, or at least believed himself to be, and the other was a nimble dweller in trees, a cousin of the master of the earth. Both species, the human and the monkey, were in the presence of another life form, which was older and more powerful than either of them, and was a dweller in blood.
A virus does not “want” to kill its host. That is not in the best interest of the virus, because then the virus may also die, unless it can jump fast enough out of the dying host into a new host.
[Nancy] had almost caught Ebola from a dead monkey, who had caught it from a young woman named Mayinga, who had caught it from a nun who had caught it from a nun who had crashed and bled out in the jungles of Zaire in years gone by.
The Ebola virus…retreated to the heart of the bush, where undoubtedly it lives to this day, cycling and cycling in some unknown host, able to shift its shape, able to mutate and become a new thing, with the potential to enter the human species in a new form.
Ebola Zaire attacks every organ and tissue in the human body except skeletal muscle and bone. It is a perfect parasite because it transforms virtually every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles.
Mr. Preston: Unless you include the feeling generated by gazing into the eyes of a waving confrontational cobra, “fascination” is not what I feel about Ebola. How about shit scared?
Some of the predators that feed on humans have lived on the earth for a long time, far longer than the human race, and their origins go back, it seems, almost to the formation of the planet. When a human being is fed upon and consumed by one of them, especially in Africa, the event is telescoped against horizons of space and time, and takes on a feeling of immense antiquity.
Gene felt a prickling sensation on his scalp. The paths of Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had crossed at only one place on earth, and that was inside Kitum Cave. What had they done in the cave? What had they found in there? What had they touched? What had they breathed? What lived in Kitum Cave?
[Peter Jahrling] had held in his gloved hands virtually every hot agent known, except for Ebola and Marburg. When people asked him why he didn’t work with those viruses, he replied, “I don’t particularly feel like dying.”
A freezer can be as hot as hell. When a place is biologically hot, no sensors, no alarms, no instruments can tell the story. All instruments are silent and register nothing.
He saw virus particles shaped like snakes, in negative images. They were white cobras tangled among themselves, like the hair of Medusa. They were the face of Nature herself, the obscene goddess revealed naked. This life form thing was breathtakingly beautiful. As he stared at it, he found himself being pulled out of the human world into a world where moral boundaries blur and finally dissolve completely. He was lost in wonder and admiration, even though he knew that he was the prey.
C. J. Peters observed the comings and goings at the gas station. It gave him a sense of life and time passing, and he enjoyed the pleasant normality of the scene…What would these people think if they knew what had invaded their town? He had begun to think that the Army might have to act decisively to put out this fire. He had been in Bolivia when a hot agent called Machupo had broken out, and he had seen a young woman die, covered with blood. North America had not yet seen an emergence of an agent that turned into bleeders. North America was not ready for that, not yet. But the possibilities for a huge break of Ebola around Washington were impressive when you thought about it.
Be exquisitely careful. Know where your hands and body are at all times. If you get blood on your suit, stop what you are doing and clean it off right away. Don’t let blood stay on your gloves. Rinse them off right away. With bloody gloves, you can’t see a hole in the glove.
What on earth was going on with this virus? It killed monkeys like flies, they were dripping virus from every pore, yet no human being had crashed. If the virus wasn’t Ebola Zaire, what was it? And where had it come from?...Something very strange was going on here. Nature had seemed to be closing in on us for a kill, when she suddenly turned her face away and smiled. It was a Mona Lisa smile, the meaning of which no one could figure out.
My God, with certain small changes, this virus could become one that travels in rapid respiratory transmission through humans. I’m talking about the Black Death. Imagine a virus with the infectiousness of influenza and the mortality rate of the black plague in the Middle Ages—that’s what we’re talking about.
The paving of Kinshasa Highway affected every person on earth, and turned out to be one of the most important events of the twentieth century. It has already cost at least ten million lives, with the likelihood that the ultimate number of human casualties will vastly exceed the deaths in the Second World War. In effect, I had witnessed a crucial event in the emergence of AIDS, the transformation of a thread of dirt into a ribbon of tar.
Say “Ahh,” Kitum Cave. Do you have a virus? No instruments, no senses can tell you if you are in the presence of the predator. I turned off my lights and stood in total darkness, feeling a bath of sweat trickle down my chest, hearing the thump of my heart and the swish of blood in my head.
The emergence of AIDS, Ebola, and any number of other rain-forest agents appears to be a natural consequence of the ruin of the tropical biosphere. The emerging viruses are surfacing from ecologically damaged parts of the earth…In a sense, the earth is mounting an immune response against the human species…Perhaps the biosphere does not “like” the idea of five million humans…Nature has interesting ways of balancing itself. The rain forest has its own defenses. 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. Perhaps AIDS is the first step in a natural process of clearance.
I suspect that AIDS might not be Nature’s preeminent display of power. Whether the human race can actually maintain a population of five billion or more without a crash with a hot virus remains an open question. Unanswered. The answer lies hidden in the labyrinth of tropical ecosystems. AIDS is the revenge of the rain forest. It may only be the beginning.