Book Review: Crisis in the Red Zone by Richard Preston

Crisis in the Red Zone by Richard Preston
Rating: ★★★★☆
Links: AmazonTBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: July 23, 2019
Source: Borrowed

The 2013-2014 Ebola epidemic was the deadliest ever–but the outbreaks continue. Now comes a gripping account of the doctors and scientists fighting to protect us, an urgent wake-up call about the future of emerging viruses–from the #1 bestselling author of The Hot Zone, soon to be a National Geographic original miniseries.

This time, Ebola started with a two-year-old child who likely had contact with a wild creature and whose entire family quickly fell ill and died. The ensuing global drama activated health professionals in North America, Europe, and Africa in a desperate race against time to contain the viral wildfire. By the end–as the virus mutated into its deadliest form, and spread farther and faster than ever before–30,000 people would be infected, and the dead would be spread across eight countries on three continents.

In this taut and suspenseful medical drama, Richard Preston deeply chronicles the outbreak, in which we saw for the first time the specter of Ebola jumping continents, crossing the Atlantic, and infecting people in America. Rich in characters and conflict–physical, emotional, and ethical–Crisis in the Red Zone is an immersion in one of the great public health calamities of our time.

Preston writes of doctors and nurses in the field putting their own lives on the line, of government bureaucrats and NGO administrators moving, often fitfully, to try to contain the outbreak, and of pharmaceutical companies racing to develop drugs to combat the virus. He also explores the charged ethical dilemma over who should and did receive the rare doses of an experimental treatment when they became available at the peak of the disaster.

Crisis in the Red Zone makes clear that the outbreak of 2013-2014 is a harbinger of further, more severe outbreaks, and of emerging viruses heretofore unimagined–in any country, on any continent. In our ever more interconnected world, with roads and towns cut deep into the jungles of equatorial Africa, viruses both familiar and undiscovered are being unleashed into more densely populated areas than ever before.

The more we discover about the virosphere, the more we realize its deadly potential. Crisis in the Red Zone is an exquisitely timely book, a stark warning of viral outbreaks to come.

So, fun fact, Richard Preston is friends with one of my previous employers. I’ve met him, he was perfectly nice, and I always felt weird about reading his books because what if I hated something he wrote and then I had to look him in the face and pretend I didn’t? Well, fortunately for me and my reading life, I’m far removed from that job now and Preston has a new-ish book about, of all things, a highly contagious virus with no known vaccine and no foolproof treatment. It seemed timely, so I gave it a chance.

And let me tell you, this book made me want to simultaneously keep listening so I’d learn more and stop listening so I could go take a shower. That takes talent, I think.

The spread of Ebola is something that I’ve found mind-boggling since the outbreak in 2014. The small hospital I worked at held Ebola drills. I was trained to ask people if they’d been traveling, if they or any of their close contacts were experiencing any of a long list of symptoms, and who to contact with any suspected cases. This is a disease that causes bloody vomit, bloody diarrhea, bleeding from the eyes, ears, nose… basically blood just pouring out of the body at any opening. The very idea of someone casually walking into a doctor’s office while actively suffering from Ebola seemed laughable. The idea of any kind of pandemic coming to my town seemed impossible back then. Not so much now.

The thing is, the amount of medical professionals who got (and further spread) Ebola because they “forgot” their PPE is honestly terrifying. If doctors and nurses and researchers can go running, unprotected, into a room where dozens of people are infected with a highly contagious disease that’s spread through contact with infected bodily fluids, then it’s no wonder this disease spread like wildfire. There were so many accounts of doctors going to take blood samples or biopsies, only to realize after the fact that they weren’t wearing gloves. There were so many accounts of professionals who’d been exposed and gone about their normal lives like if they just ignored it, it would go away. This was much more disturbing to me than the cultural practices that led to Ebola’s spread between family members.

I will admit that the book can be a little confusing as Preston jumps around from one outbreak to another and back again with little differentiation. This is the main reason that I gave the book four stars rather than five. Overall, though, it was a very, very good book and I would recommend it if (and only if) you’re okay with very, very descriptive accounts of the effects and symptoms of Ebola.

#mm20: author introduction

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