Thursday, August 15, 2013

Your worst nightmare?

Do you like scary movies?  I do, but I don't care for the 'slasher' movies that are so common and rely mostly on gore.  I much prefer a clever movie that creeps you out with something that's vague and unknown, kind of like "The Village" or "The Grudge;" or a good ghost story like "Poltergeist."  "Jaws" is another great scary movie, because – although highly unlikely – it is possible, and you don't always see the shark coming.  But watching a movie is safe.  You watch from the couch or a seat in the theater, and the fright will all be over in a couple of hours.  It's the real world that is a scary place.  And I'm not talking about sharks or ghosts or even crazy people.

One of the smallest things in the world is a virus.  Some scientists don't even consider viruses to be truly alive, because they need the right host to do anything.  But when a virus gets inside it can cause big problems.  We're most familiar with viruses like influenza, which can kill but seldom does, and usually just makes you feel lousy for a week.  But others, like filoviruses (thread viruses), are truly scary and there's no vaccine or cure, and many researchers are afraid to even work with them.  They go by names like Marburg and Ebola, and they'll do to your body in a week or two what it takes the AIDS virus 10 years – and you never saw it coming.

Richard Preston explains what it's like to get Marburg in his book The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story, through the story of "Charles Monet" (a pseudonym) who likely got the virus while visiting the amazing Kitum Cave on Mount Elgon in Kenya.  It starts with a severe headache and backache, and progresses to vomiting, diarrhea, and red eye.  It ends particularly horribly in what is called "crash and bleed out" about ten days later, and I'll spare you the details of that.  In addition to Marburg, Preston describes the closely-related viruses Ebola Zaire and Ebola Sudan, and death rates for these tiny monsters range from 50% to 90% and have wiped out entire villages in central Africa even though it doesn't appear they can spread through the air.  But Africa is a long ways away.  Could a filovirus end up here?  In October 1989 one was found only 15 miles outside Washington DC.  The Reston virus, as it is known, appeared to be 100% fatal in monkeys that were imported from the Philippines and were destined for laboratories around the country.  Most frightening, it appears that the virus easily became airborne and even spread to people.

Preston has a novelist's flair in his writing, and some critics accuse him of sensationalizing and exaggerating the history, but it's considered non-fiction.  And just like his book The Demon in the Freezer (about the smallpox virus), I could hardly put it down and finished in just a couple of days.  And it's scary enough that even horror-writer Stephen King said "The first chapter... is one of the most horrifying things I've ever read in my whole life... and then it gets worse.  That's what I keep marveling over: it keeps getting worse."  So, if you like a good scare once in a while this book will provide it for you.  And hopefully you'll recover after a few weeks.

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