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Virus Ground Zero

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Virus Ground Zero. Stalking the Killer Viruses with the Centers for Disease Control. By Ed Regis. (Pocket: 1998. Pg. 256.) ISBN: 067102325X

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - September 21, 2001

Virus Ground Zero offers an intriguing look into the history and the modern workings of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It also offers a brief overview of basic immunology and virology. This overview enables the lay reader to readily grasp the nature of viruses, and to better understand the battle that the CDC wages in the fight to preserve the public's health. Ed Regis, a respected science writer, reviews the workings of the CDC by illustrating how the CDC was formed, its initial mission, and how it developed into the premier institution dedicated to the identification, and when possible, the eradication of harmful viruses. Throughout, he discusses the CDC not only from the viewpoint of it being a monumental edifice, but also from the viewpoint of the men and women who are the actual virus hunters.

In 1946, the CDC moved into the old 'Office of Malaria Control in War Areas', then located in Atlanta, Georgia - to this day, Atlanta is still the headquarters for the CDC. When it was established, the CDC was called the Communicable Disease Center. Their task was to continue the battle against malaria that had gained momentum during World War II, and to tackle other diseases, such as Typhus, which were still endemic in the American South.

Since its founding, the CDC has changed its name to Center for Disease Control, the Centers for Disease Control, and than, more recently, to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From its modest beginning, the CDC grew into the nation's primary center for the monitoring and identification of the world's viruses. It has also served as the leader in the vanguard for the eradication of various viruses such as smallpox and polio.

Woven throughout this book is an in-depth look at the 1995 Ebola Viral Hemorrhagic Fever outbreak in Kitwit, Zaire, and the CDC's and the world's response to the outbreak. By using this one outbreak as a backdrop, Regis not only describes (a description that may be too graphic for some readers) the impact of hemorrhagic fevers, but also illustrates how they, and other diseases are identified, tracked, and combated. He also explains how various diseases are spread and treated, and the threat that they may represent to the world.

In Virus Ground Zero, Regis discuses how the CDC has tried to eradicate various diseases such as malaria, smallpox, and polio. He explains how they attacked these diseases, and how it was necessary for these attacks to be part of a larger, global attack plan. Beyond showing how these wars were waged, he explains why they failed or succeeded. Most interesting, he explores the emergence and submergence of various virtues, examining how a virus may die off in one area, only to spring up anew in a different region.

This is an encouraging, yet also a very depressing book. Regis clearly shows the phenomenal successes that the CDC has had in their efforts to improve public health, such as with the eradication of smallpox. But he is also quick to point out that the men and women of the CDC are dealing with a varied, and highly resilient foe, a foe that has the uncanny knack of taking humans unaware. For example, in May 1993, when young, healthy people began to die from a mysterious aliment, the CDC was in the forefront, helping to identify the new disease, Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome. The only problem was, historically speaking, this was not a new disease. It was simply a disease that 'we' had not had to deal with for a long time. Now that it has been re-acknowledged, new cases are routinely identified. And one of the CDC's ongoing public health efforts is to monitor the spread of the disease, and when possible, take steps to minimize the chance of anyone catching 'it'. He also clearly shows just how depressing the men and women of the CDC feel when they meet a foe against which they are helpless - at least for now...

This book is not so much a discourse on viruses and their impact on humankind as it is a study on the CDC itself. It covers not just the history of the CDC, but also how it is organized, and how it functions, both scientifically and bureaucratically. If you are looking for viral 'doomsday' book, this book is not for you. Regis is convinced, and this is clearly delineated in Virus Ground Zero, that virus are only a mere inconvenience. An inconvenience that science, and the CDC, if given enough time and resources, can easily conquer. He is also certain that viruses do not represent the threat that many 'virus paranoids' proclaim. Many doomsayers have stated that a virus could, essentially, destroy mankind. Regis does not believe that this is possible. I hope that Regis is right, but I fear that he places too much confidence in the power of science. Yes, given the time and the money, it is technically possible that almost any virus could be conquered. The problem is that a fast moving, deadly virus might not be willing to wait patiently to be destroyed. Despite Regis bias, this is an interesting and informative book. It offers a fascinating, insiders look at the CDC, and it proffers a glimpse at the arsenal at the disposal of the 'Texas Rangers' of the virus world.

Related Reviews:

The Coming Plague, by Laurie Garrett.
Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. This impressive book examines the potentially catastrophic dangers presented by viruses and mans attempts to control the uncontrollable.

Public Health Law: Power, Duty, Restraint, 2nd Edition, by Lawrence O. Gostin.
Newly revised and expanded, this is a comprehensive introduction to the field of public health law, and the role that the government does, and should play in protecting the health of its citizens.

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