Richard Preston never foresaw the devastating impact Ebola would have on West Africa today.
In a Wednesday afternoon talk entitled “Ebola Breakout from the Hot Zone,” Preston — a contributor to The New Yorker who first started writing about the Ebola virus over two decades ago — spoke about the human story behind Ebola crises to an audience of roughly 50 at the Whitney Humanities Center. Describing individual health care workers and patients in Ebola outbreaks past and present, Preston depicted the disease as a force of nature that has the power to crush even those who try their best to control it. While he acknowledged the frightening nature of the virus, he also emphasized the valiant efforts people have made to care for Ebola patients.
“I see this [outbreak] not so much as a failure, but as a natural disaster that simply overwhelmed us,” Preston said.
Health care workers are willing to sacrifice their lives for patients and science, he added, specifying Sheik Humarr Khan, chief physician at the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone, as one such doctor. Preston spoke of how Khan worked closely with Ebola patients until he contracted the disease and isolated himself far from the hospital at which he had been working, so as not to demoralize other health care workers and patients. The doctor died suddenly before officials could decide whether or not to treat him with an experimental drug.
Preston said physicians had been fighting Ebola since 1976, when a Belgian doctor first discovered the virus in the small village of Yambuku in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since then, the Ebola virus has appeared more than 20 times with the vast majority of cases in Africa.
“I think the real experts of Ebola … never underestimated Ebola,” Preston said. But the greater scientific and medical community did underestimate the disease and thus were not prepared to deal with the current outbreak. He theorized that in previous outbreaks, the “brilliant” work of organizations such as Doctors Without Borders — which sent physicians to train healthcare workers in developed countries — in previous outbreaks had created a “climate of complacency” in the rest of the community.
Preston noted that the virus’s 1,900-letter genetic code is constantly mutating. These mutations could significantly alter the function of proteins, for example, by changing glycoproteins, which rest on the virus’s surface and bind with receptors in the human host. The alteration of these glycoproteins could hamper efforts to create effective tests or drugs for Ebola. But Preston noted that, contrary to what some people may fear, the virus is unlikely to become airborne.
The current outbreak is so severe because it has reached a dense urban population, Preston said. The Ebola virus has no cure or vaccine and is classified as a Biosafety Level 4 pathogen. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13,042 cases and 4,818 deaths have been reported so far in the current epidemic.
Ryan Boyko GRD ’18, the graduate student who was admitted to Yale-New Haven Hospital with Ebola-like symptoms and subsequently quarantined for 21 days, stood up to ask a question. Instead of answering, Preston asked Boyko about his experiences in West Africa and how severe the outbreak seems on the ground. Boyko noted that although the disease is currently spreading at a rapid pace, public health and medical officials are trying to stem the tide of the disease by building hand-washing stations outside of buildings and providing hotlines that people can call to have dead bodies safely removed.
“[These changes] are a testament to the fact that [Ebola] is on everyone’s mind,” Boyko said.
He used an analogy to explain: A zebra can evolve to run faster, but no one would ever ask if it could evolve to fly, he said.
When disasters like the current Ebola epidemic strike, people may become fearful, but they may also feel a sense of awe, Preston said.
“The Ebola experts sometimes talk about the beauty of Ebola,” Preston said before the event. “Their appreciation for its beauty really extends to a sense of wonder at Ebola’s savagery.”
Irina Lomakina, whose husband works at Yale-New Haven Hospital, said it was emotionally difficult to listen to the stories of human suffering, even though she knows that the virus is powerful enough to wreak havoc on entire populations.
That commitment to others impressed Daniel Goldhill GRD ’15, a student in ecology and evolutionary biology, who said he was struck by how willing health care workers were to make sacrifices for their patients.
Preston is the author of nine books, including “The Hot Zone” — an expansion of his 1992 New Yorker article on Ebola and the inspiration for the movie “Outbreak.” He is the recipient of the American Institute of Physics and National Magazine Awards and the only non-medical doctor to receive the Centers for Disease Control Champion of Prevention Award.