The 2014 epidemic of Ebola virus disease in West Africa is unlike any Ebola event ever seen before. In fact, as of this writing, it’s already ten times larger in terms of case fatalities—ten times more punishing to Africans, ten times more scary and befuddling to people around the world—than any single outbreak of an ebolavirus (there are five kinds) during the previous known history of the disease. The peculiarly unfortunate circumstances that allowed this outbreak to simmer for months and then explode in the three countries first affected, and especially in Liberia, include weakened governance after decades of civil turmoil, inadequate health-care infrastructure, shortage of trained health-care workers and simple barrier-nursing supplies, population density and poverty in the capital cities, suspicion of Western medicine, and traditional funerary practices. Those factors, and the progress of the epidemic, have been charted in some of the best of the news coverage, including this story by Canadian reporter Helen Branswell, and this one from a team at The Washington Post.
I value such news reporting as much as anyone, but my own role as a writer is different; I cover science and science history at greater length and slower speed. Still, as the epidemic became more severe in late August, my British publisher asked me to move quickly, for a change, and draw together the sections concerning Ebola virus from my 2012 book Spillover and, by editing and rearranging them into a stand-alone structure, to create a small book that could be published promptly. I’ve done that, adding a new Introduction, and a new Epilogue about the events of 2014. The result is Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, published by Random House in the United Kingdom in early October and by W.W. Norton in the United States on October 20. This is a book for people who are too busy, in an urgent and nervous time, or otherwise disinclined by lack of interest in the broader topic, to read Spillover. Its purpose is to give readers, including hurried news people and public officials as well as ordinary readers, a concise but substantive understanding of Ebola virus within its scientific, historical, and geographical contexts.
Ebola comes from the African forest. I’ve been there, shadowing the footsteps of some courageous researchers; I’ve also had opportunity, over the course of six years’ work on Spillover, to study the scientific literature on Ebola and to talk with some of the world’s foremost experts. I hope that what they have learned about Ebola virus and its doings can be of some help in the situation where we find ourselves now.
Ebola and the New Isolationism, Time Inc., October 6, 2014
David Quammen is an author and journalist whose twelve books include The Song of the Dodo, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, and most recently Spillover, a work on the science, history, and human impacts of emerging diseases (especially viral diseases), which was short-listed for seven national and international awards. In the past thirty years he has also published a few hundred pieces of short nonfiction—feature articles, essays, columns—in magazines such as Harper’s, National Geographic, Outside, Esquire, The Atlantic, Powder, and Rolling Stone. He writes occasional Op Eds for The New York Times and reviews for The New York Times Book Review. Quammen has been honored with an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and is a three-time recipient of the National Magazine Award. He is a Contributing Writer for National Geographic, in whose service he travels often, usually to wild and remote places. Home is Bozeman, Montana.
Throughout the rest of this website, he will not refer to himself in the third person.
[Books by David Quammen]
by Charles Darwin
The Illustrated Edition
Edited with Burkhard Bilger