Saturday, December 10, 2016

Zoonotic Pathogens Everywhere

In November I managed to read The Hot Zone, a thrilling book about filoviruses such as Marburg and Ebola.  I've always been somewhat morbidly fascinated by these terrible diseases, and I decided it was time to learn a bit more about them.  The Hot Zone is a book that often shows up on AP biology summer reading lists, so I thought I'd start there.

I started it the beginning of November, and it was certainly enthralling.  It was a bit like a horror movie, though, where the author ominously lays out the scene, including (*foreboding music playing in your head . . .*) a big cut on someone . . . and you can just feel that bad things are right around the corner (Don't turn the page!!)  It was also quite luridly descriptive of the physical symptoms of these diseases, which didn't help.  Every time another person was introduced by their initials, you knew it was curtains for them, in a bloody, virus-laden bag of oozing nastiness sort of way.  So I had to take a break until closer to Thanksgiving, when I finally finished it.

The big story line of the book is a bizarre tale of monkeys dying here in 1989 in suburban Washington D.C., in Reston, VA, in fact, of a mysterious illness that ends up being a different strain of Ebola.  The book describes the building where the monkeys were kept after being imported as a one story building in an area of offices built in the 60's across from a McDonalds, not far from Rt. 7.  The only possible McDonalds I could think of that fit that description was off of Weihle, near the Dulles Toll Road.  I did some googling, and found an article celebrating the 25th anniversary of this event which talked about the building.  Boy was I right.  In fact, the very location of the building was where we had our year of Classical Conversations back in 2009-2010!  What?!?  How crazy is that?!  Fortunately, the building was razed after a second outbreak, but still.  That was just really, really weird.  We were in a rebuilt building on the exact spot of the outbreak.  Huh.

Anyhow, the book left me with more questions than ever.  I still had no understanding of how these viruses pop up for short periods of time, then disappear.  And why did it seem like no one was making any progress in finding the reservoir for these viruses??  So I browsed amazon to find other books written since the early 90's on the subject, and then I requested all those I could from our local library.

Spillover was my first reading selection, and it was a good choice.  The author David Quammen deals not only with filoviruses, but all zoonotic diseases, including SARS, Hendra, Nipah, malaria, and AIDS.  It made me wish I had gone in more of an epidemiological route after my undergraduate.  It would have fit with my biology and math degree.  Ah well.  I would have had to do theoretical work, though, because there is NO WAY I could possibly ever work in a high level biosafety lab.  I got totally claustrophobic just reading about it!

But I digress . . . now I have a much deeper understanding of how viruses work in populations, and how epidemics start and spread.  And it looks like fruit bats are the reservoirs for ebola, although there's still more research to be done.  If you have any interest at all in the subject, or just a morbid curiosity, I would highly recommend this book to fill in gaps.  He writes a very readable and fascinating book, and there are not all the lurid, gory descriptions.  In fact, he specifically mentions The Hot Zone a few times derisively (both himself and in quoting other scientists).  Apparently people who die of ebola are not just bags of viruses, having had their insides liquified, ready to explode on unsuspecting caretakers or neighbors.  Pretty much, don't touch bodily fluids of an ebola-infected person without being suited up in a hazmat suit, breathing through a respirator, and you should be fine.  So that's some relief.

Which leads me to this last book.  Called For Life was written by Dr. Kent Brantly, who is famous for having contracted ebola while working in Liberia in 2014 for Samaritan's Purse.  He was airlifted out of there to Emory Hospital in Atlanta.  He would have died except he was given a dose of a highly experimental anti-viral drug that had ended up in Africa some time before, but hadn't been used.  I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.  He deals honestly with his struggles about why he survived, while so many African lives were lost, and how his faith was rocked by contracting the disease while he was trying as hard as he could to save people.  He gives obviously a much more realistic picture of what it is like to have ebola, and to care for those who have it. It was really sobering, but also very encouraging and uplifting to read about him and his wife Amber.  It was a quick read too.  I was really glad to have this more personal book to read in the middle of the more technical and clinical (but still very readable!) book, Spillover.  It really brought the focus back to the people who are suffering.

The last book I have out on the subject is called Pandemic:  Tracking Contagions, From Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, by Sonia Shah, and it's published in 2016, so hopefully with that, I'll be up to date on current research progress.  That will have to wait for Christmas break though.  I need a little break from pathogens, lol.  For awhile there, I was literally flinching every time I touched my eye, or anything like that.  Fatal disease everywhere!!  Time to dial it back down a bit . . .

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