Despite outbreaks of news headline-grabbing viral diseases such as Ebola and Marburg in which victims suffer uncontrollable bleeding and quickly die, Regis believes that the public's perception of an apocalyptic threat posed by emerging killer viruses is largely an illusion fostered by the CDC's global success in discovering undetected pathogens.
Regis doesn't deny that these are nasty diseases to get, but he argues that their danger is overrated and only gets a chance to go epidemic when basic precautions aren't taken. Isolating patients, the proper antiseptic procedures and common household bleach are enough to stop these epidemics in their path, he believes. These are not "omnipotent agents hell-bent on wiping out humankind, but diseases born out of third world poverty and bad hospitals."
As illustrated in Regis' book, the solution was simply: "We just went in, cleaned the floor, removed the needles, removed the cadavers, put them in body bags, and did the cleaning." (Regis quoting a CDC physician upon arriving at Kikwit, the main locus of transmission for Ebola).
The fact of the matter was that Ebola hemorrhagic fever, along with Marburg and Lassa, were diseases of poverty and bad hospitals. Although they thrived momentarily when they erupted in such environments, those same viruses were stopped cold every time they turned up in well-equipped medical institutions. Common and ordinary items such as rubber gloves, plastic gowns, and face masks could halt an epidemic. A killer virus itself could be killed by a liberal application of household bleach. [T]hose items, mundane and boring as they were, had been the very things that had terminated the Ebola outbreak in Kikwit.
He quotes a South African physician who dealt with an earlier outbreak of the disease: "Ebola is of absolutely no danger to the world at large. It is a dangerous virus, but it's relatively rare and quite easily contained....The media is scaring the world out of its wits, and movies like Outbreak are doing people a great disservice." Here, media and movies are blamed as scaring the world.
According to the book, the report of the Ebola outbreak reached the CDC in Atlanta in May that year and the famed virus hunters began their work. They traced the outbreak backwards, from the present patient, to the individual who infected him, to the individual who infected him, and so forth, until they reached ground zero, the first person to have contracted the virus. The next step was to discover what insect, animal, or other organism harbored the virus and infected the ground zero victim.
Regis offers a lively, engaging, and often amusing account of how disease controllers do their job: tracing lines of transmission, identifying pathogens, looking for their source, developing countermeasures. He pops back and forth in time a lot, which is occasionally confusing. The book doesn't have an index.
Generally, Regis' account is interesting, teaching not only about the Ebola outbreak in Kikwit but also about the eradication of smallpox, the solution to the mystery of Legionnaires' disease, and other fascinating episodes in epidemiology.
Regis' version comes diametrically opposed to the views about the potential threat from the Marburg and Ebola viruses described by Richard Preston in The Hot Zone. Regis believes that