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BOOK REVIEW—"Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus”

The objective of David Quammen’s book, “Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus” (published October 20, 2014) is stated clearly in the introduction section as “to place the 2014 West Africa outbreak […] within a broader context that makes sense of those mysteries and their partial solutions. My offering here is merely a partial view of the history and science of Ebola” (Quammen, p. 2). Quammen then continues to explain that he did not have a traumatizing experience of losing his loved ones as many have, but did travel through “Ebola habitat” and became very close friends with two men who experienced the horrible realities of the Ebola virus. Quammen uses anecdotes to educate his readers regarding the Ebola virus and similar viruses, such as the Marburg virus for example. In the beginning of the book, Quammen tells about the outbreak in the village of Mayibout 2 in Gabon, Africa, where 18 people mysteriously acquired an illness and quickly died. The original victim had eaten a chimpanzee that was found dead and rotting in the forest, and was then prepared traditionally to eat. Because chimps suffer from the virus and die quickly, as do humans infected with Ebola virus, neither we nor the chimps are the reservoir host. Finding the reservoir host is a great interest of many scientists and public health officials around the world. Another strategy Quammen used to explain the Ebola virus outbreak was comparing it with outbreaks of the Marburg virus, which causes a very similar disease that was recognized about nine years before Ebola. Both viruses are filamentous, lethal RNA viruses and appeared “twisty” to scientists in the labs. Ebola virus had many outbreaks throughout the years starting in 1976. Many research experiments were conducted, most of which were unsuccessful, attempting to isolate the Ebola virus. Specifically, Quammen discusses the work of the Kikwit team, an intelligent group consisting of various people from the CDC and the US Army Medical Research Institution of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID). This team was determined to find the reservoir. Quammen summarizes their findings in three simple points. First, the suspected reservoir is a mammal. Second, Ebola virus is linked to forests. Lastly, the virus is extremely sporadic. These conclusions gave hints to the ongoing mystery of what the Ebola virus’s reservoir host is. Personally, I believe David Quammen did a wonderful job of giving his readers an educational, informative look into the ongoing problems our world is facing with the Ebola virus. This virus has been quickly evolving, showing up and disappearing quickly in many parts of the world, and seems to leave no helpful evidence or traces behind. These factors, along with the lack of funds, education, and resources, contribute to the complexity and difficulty of understanding this deadly virus. Quammen also appeals to his reader’s emotions throughout the text by telling interesting, detailed, and personal stories of people directly affected by the destruction of the virus.

--by Sara Malmanger, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Science Writing Intern with BioQuick Online News

[Ebola book on Amazon]