The Demon in the Freezer
By Richard Preston Random House Large Print, (2002)
Genre: Public Health, Virology, Current Events
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - January 8, 2004
Smallpox (variola virus) has stalked mankind for centuries, killing and disfiguring untold millions of people during its merciless reign. It is only recently that mankind has gained the upper hand against this deadly plague. After years of hard work, smallpox was officially eradicated, from nature, in 1979. A few years later the practice of routinely vaccinating people against smallpox was discontinued, and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. That is except for those who knew that as long as any vestige of the virus remained, it posed a threat of being reintroduced to a now unprotected population. Should this occur, the results would most likely be devastating!
When the smallpox virus was eradicated, viable samples of the virus where 'officially' collected and stored in two depositories. One in the United States and the other is in the Soviet Union. In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva kept on hand a stockpile of smallpox vaccine. Scientist and public health offices long felt that the only way to truly protect humans from smallpox was to destroy these reserves, just in case there was an accidental release (as there was in England in 1978), or terrorists or a rouge state obtained the live virus. For years, political bickering and indecision prevented the destruction of these stockpiles, as did the fear that the virus was already in the hands of people who might use it for some nefarious reason. If this was the case, many argued that it was essential that these stockpiles be maintained as fodder for scientific research into a cure for smallpox.
The debate surrounding these stockpiles has only escalated after the events of 9-11, when the political establishment admitted to the public that there was the potential of smallpox being used as a biological weapon. A potential hazard that is compounded by the fact that the existing supply of smallpox vaccine is outdated and its potency is unknown, and there is, currently, an insufficient supply of vaccine available to vaccinate everyone on the planet.
In The Demon in The Freezer, Richard Preston takes an in-depth and compelling look at the history and potential dangers posed by smallpox. This narrative begins with a biographical overview of the life of Robert Stevens, the first victim of the anthrax letters that surfaced in October of 2001. These letters, laced with anthrax (Bacillus anthracis) spores heightened concerned about the use of weaponzied smallpox as a biological weapon, and Preston follows the trail as scientists, public health officials, and politicians tackle the various questions posed by the possibility of a smallpox outbreak. Questions that run the gamut from who might have smallpox stocks, to how to respond to an outbreak. Interwoven into this narrative is a survey of the history of smallpox and the smallpox eradication program - and the lessons learned from past outbreaks that might prove useful should the disease reappear. Preston also provides a through, but non-technical description of what exactly smallpox is, how it is transmitted, how it kills, and the various pox viruses that exist and which attack every thing from butterflies to monkeys. He also explains how the smallpox vaccine works.
Throughout this fascinating book, Preston provides intimate details about the various scientists working with smallpox and other deadly variations. These details help to personalize these individuals, and their work. For example, at one point when discussing the work that Joan Hensley was doing with the Ebola virus, he mentions that she once had a scare when she pricked her finger while working with the virus. Unsure whether she had been infected with the virus, she had a date scheduled for that night and "...she phoned him and asked if he wouldn't mind putting off the date ... He was very understanding." (pg. 217). This is an example of the easy-going style of Preston's narrative, humor, and the personal details that he was able to weave into what could have been a very depressing and technical book.
Written for the general reader, this book offers readers a clear introduction into the potential danger posed by smallpox, and the steps that are being taken to protect the population from this, and other deadly viruses. The Demon in The Freezer also explores the troubling idea that unknown stores of smallpox virus, and worse, stores of weaponzied smallpox may already exist. Preston heralds those fighting in the front lines against such threats as the specter of rouge scientists diligently working to create a vaccine resistant strain of smallpox. The men and women working at facilities such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta and the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick in Maryland are ever vigilant in their efforts to limit the threats posed by deadly viruses - both naturally occurring virus as well as those that might one day be used as a weapon.
The Demon in The Freezer is a mesmerizing book. It reads like a thriller, yet is all to true. Hopefully, smallpox will never again pose a threat to humans. Even if another case of smallpox never arises, another virus will in time take its place as our deadliest foe. Yet even if the only smallpox viruses in existence are the known stockpiles, these stockpiles still pose a threat. Is it ethical to maintain these stockpiles? Or, conversely, is it unethical to destroy them when they might be needed to develop new vaccines to combat smallpox. The Demon in The Freezer is a haunting, and important book. The issues presented in this work are applicable to any disease outbreak, and the threat posed by bioweapondry. As Preston points out, all you have to do is look at the confusion and terror that was generated by the Anthrax attacks. The failure of the public health machinery to quickly and effectively deal with the situation bodes ill should a massive biological attack occur. This book may give you nightmares, and it should!
Scourge - The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox, by Jonathan B. Tucker.
A history Smallpox: how it spread around the globe, how it affected civilization, and how Smallpox was eradicated. Plus a look at what might happen if smallpox wherever used as a bioweapon.
The Coming Plague, by Laurie Garrett.
This impressive book examines the potentially catastrophic dangers presented by viruses and mans attempts to control the uncontrollable.