The Only Thing Terrifying About “The Hot Zone” is How Fraudulent it is

I just found out that the book The Hot Zone (which describes itself as “the terrifying true story of the origins of the Ebola virus”) grossly exaggerates the dangers of the virus. And I’d say the word “grossly” is pretty apt here. In case you haven’t read it, here’s an excerpt from the book:

He coughs a deep cough and regurgitates something into the bag. The bag swells up….you see that his lips are smeared with something slippery and red, mixed with black specks, as if he has been chewing coffee grounds. His eyes are the color of rubies, and his face is an expressionless mask of bruises. The red spots…have expanded and merged into huge, spontaneous purple shadows; his whole head is turning black-and-blue…The connective tissue of his face is dissolving, and his face appears to hang from the underlying bone, as if the face is detaching itself from the skull…

No wonder so many people are terrified of Ebola, right? The virus literally melts your body away.

Well, according to a professor of infectious epidemiology (i.e., someone who knows what she’s talking about), large swathes of the story were either exaggerated or outright untrue. Below are a few excerpts from the debunking, titled How The Hot Zone Created the Worst Myths About Ebola:

Throughout the book, Preston presents these types of symptoms as typical of Ebola. Not “in worst case, this is what Ebola could do,” but simply, “here’s what happens to you when you get Ebola.” It’s even beyond a worst case scenario, as he notes in part: “In the original ‘Hot Zone,’ I have a description of a nurse weeping tears of blood. That almost certainly didn’t happen.”

Preston describes many “near misses”–people who were exposed to huge amounts of “lethally hot” Ebola-laden body fluids, but never get sick–but doesn’t really bother to expose them as such. All 35 or so people on the little commuter plane Monet flies on between his plantation in western Kenya and Nairobi, deathly ill, vomiting his coffee grounds and dripping nasal blood into the airsickness bag he handed to a flight attendant–none of them come down with the disease.

Basically, the author grossly (yes, I’m using that word again) exaggerated not only what the virus does to you physically, but also how easily it spreads — two of the main reasons for the mass hysteria that’s spreading through the country right now (although I’m sure the movie The Outbreak contributed, too). So yeah… just calm the eff down, everyone. Ebola isn’t going to kill us all.

There’s another element to this debunking that hits me a bit more personally, though….

You see, The Hot Zone was the main reason I decided to get a Ph.D. in viral evolution (though I was too terrified to even consider studying Ebola itself — nah, I settled for a harmless virus that infects soil bacteria). It was a big part of my inspiration to learn more about viruses, to understand how they work, to not be so scared of them….

It’s a weird cognitive dissonance I’m feeling at this point. One the one hand… that’s great that Ebola is not anywhere near as dangerous as the book made it out to be.

But on the other hand… dude, the inspiration for my (first) career was basically fraudulent? That saddens me in so many ways.

Lab life, circa 2001

Lab life, circa 2001

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