Medical Nonfiction

Book Review: Crisis in the Red Zone by Richard Preston

Reading format: Library hardback

Content warnings: blood, gore, death

Rating: 5/5

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Author of New York Times Bestseller The Hot Zone, Richard Preston chronicles the Ebola outbreak of 2013-2014 in Crisis in the Red Zone. Preston sets the scene for us in 1976 at the Yambuku Catholic mission hospital in Zaire. There, a woman who comes in for labor also exhibits signs of what the sisters believe is malaria of the brain. Unfortunately, the sisters are unsuccessful in treating the woman. And one by one those running the mission down with a mysterious malady that we now know was Ebola. Fast forward to 2013 when a toddler contracts the virus, likely through wildlife at a popular play spot near the village. It spreads amongst his family, setting off a series of events in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia that spark a global effort to contain and quash the outbreak.

Like a gripping documentary, Preston describes the epidemic to us in such a way that it feels as if we’re hovering unseen nearby. We witness the split second decisions and herculean efforts of health professionals to save those afflicted with Ebola while simultaneously trying to control the spread of the virus through contact tracing and education. Across the world in Europe and North America are the moving pieces of pharmaceutical companies, government bureaucrats, and non-government organizations who are working to develop drugs and distribute supplies and on-the-ground expertise to help fight the virus. We feel the fervor and desperation of the characters through the pages. They are fraught with emotional, physical, and difficult ethical struggles, particularly when rare, experimental doses of a vaccine become available.

Crisis in the Red Zone is a clear example of invisible yet ever-present viruses spilling over into humans and how severe outbreaks such as these can be difficult to contain. Having read this in January 2021 during our current pandemic, it’s easy to make simple comparisons. Covid-19 is not as gory or fatal as Ebola, but the learning curve and race against time to develop a vaccine parallel our current experience with a novel virus. If you love reading medical nonfiction like me, you’ll appreciate how Preston linearly and richly describes the unfolding of these events. However, because of the covid-19 pandemic, this is not a book for those who may be triggered by similar medical and global events. That said, I found this book just as engrossing as I did The Hot Zone and couldn’t put it down. Some people enjoy murder mystery stories or psychological thrillers. But I prefer medical nonfiction accounts which are thrilling (and terrifying) in their own way.

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