Rolling up your sleeve for your flu shot this season, you probably did not think about the zoonoses you are keeping at bay. A zoonosis describes an infection that is transmitted from animal to human. The flu falls into this nasty category, as do other scary things like West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, rabies and, yes, Ebola. Science writer and explorer David Quammen is not trying to scare us in his slender but potent new book, Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus. Rather, he provides much needed perspective on the 2014 epidemic in West Africa that dominated the news here and abroad.
Where did Ebola come from? That's the question everyone wants answered about a disease whose first recognized emergence dates to 1976. Quammen takes us back to that point and the consequences of interconnected ecosystems. He writes in layman's terms about early efforts to sequester various species for testing only to be disappointed each time. "It was Zorro, it was the Swamp Fox, it was Jack the Ripper — dangerous, invisible, gone," Quammen says. This is the problem with a disease that moves, or spills over, from animals to humans. Identifying the reservoir host animal is key to understanding how the virus wreaks havoc, then disappears again, for perhaps decades. The need for containment is great for fear that it will eventually adapt. For scientists, the hunt is on.
Quammen, who extracted and updated material from his 2012 book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, spent time in the jungles of Gabon, where he first encountered the "peculiar, disconcerting disease." Through interviews with laboratory sleuths and Ebola victims' families he fills in as many blanks as possible, writing in a highly readable journalistic style. Readers of Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, whom Quammen gently takes to task in his book, will find a fast-paced science mystery that urgently begs solving.