Virus Ground Zero, Ed Regis

Pocket, 1996, 244 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-55361-5

In 1995, a book titled The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, caused a stir among the American public. A dramatic non-fiction account of Ebola outbreaks in Africa and in a Washington DC suburb, it was propelled to the top of the bestseller lists by a combination of good writing, great reviews and an uncanny sense of timing: A few weeks after its initial release, another Ebola outbreak in Zaire made headlines and bolstered sales of the book.

Virus Ground Zero is, in many ways, a follow-up to The Hot Zone. It describes in detail the 1995 African outbreak. It draws an unofficial history of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the world’s foremost anti-viral agency. It also aims to puncture the myth of “the coming plague”, fostered in part by books like The Hot Zone. The result is a triumph of anecdotic storytelling, but a dismal structural failure.

The framework of Virus Ground Zero is provided by the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Kikwit, Zaire. Regis meticulously -but entertainingly- describes the evolution of the outbreak from the initial cases to the ceremonial end of the emergency. It’s a naturally gripping tale, with the detective-like work of tracking down the origin of the virus and the culture clash between American experts and third-world Zaire. Additionally, this being the nineties, the epidemic naturally becomes a media event, and the most blackly amusing parts of the book describe how the media presence in Kikwit was more numerous than the CDC virus experts, and far more obnoxious.

Regis adds to this report an unofficial (read; not always laudatory) history of the Center for Disease Control. Born out of the need to control Malaria in the United States in the 1940s, the CDC quickly grew outside its first assigned bounds to take on more and more duties outside malaria control or even disease control. By the nineties, the CDC had become a massive bureaucracy where only a tenth of all resources were directly assigned to infectious diseases. But the CDC can at least boasts of some significant successes: In the seventies, their efforts managed to erase smallpox, one of humankind’s oldest enemies, from the face of the Earth. This story, and many others, are interwoven in the book.

And there lies the most significant weakness of Virus Ground Zero; a lack of organization. From the beginning, Kikwit crisis and CDC history are alternately covered, without clear chapter distinctions or indications. It’s as if Regis flits from subject to subject as he likes it, ignoring chronology and often leaving “cliffhangers” at the end of each snippet, which won’t be answered until much later in the book. Such a structure is fine for novels, but for a serious nonfiction scientific vulgarization, it’s a fatal mistake. Even worse; there is no index. You can’t reasonably use Virus Ground Zero as a reference book because there’s no way of quickly locating an element. How these types of blatant omission still make it in today’s publishing industry are left as a perverse exercise to the reader.

The real shame of Virus Ground Zero is that Regis is, basically, a rather good vulgarizer. His writing style is clear and witty. He selects good anecdotes and presents them in a way that make a point clear. He isn’t afraid to criticize when it’s appropriate. His explanations are clear and to the point. His central thesis -based on his examination of the non-event that was the Kikwit outbreak- that there’s no such thing as “a coming plague” is carefully documented and does seem reasonable.

But presentation is often as important as content, and so Virus Ground Zero fails on factors external to the content. There would be several easy way to “fix” the book, from a simple index to a complete chronological re-organization of the book, but the current product is a nightmare of structure, a bunch of good stories impossible to consult efficiently.

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