The Awakening

A man explores the deep recesses of Africa and inadvertently awakens a sleeping monster. He begins feeling feverish, vomiting blood. When he stumbles to the nearest hospital, the doctors witness a gruesome and horrifying death – his organs and brain slowly liquefies, with massive internal bleeding, till finally everything just spills out on the hospital floor, each drop of liquid carrying thousands of toxic poisonous particles.

Sound like the plot of a horror film? Truth is stranger than fiction. In 1980, a man in Africa contracted the deadly Marburg virus after exploring a mountain cave. The symptoms are even more scary than what I’ve described. Check out the book “The Hot Zone” by Richard Preston, a book described as a “thriller” but is actually a dramatized nonfiction. Here are some excerpts from the case I’ve described:

“Then, on the third day after his headache started, he became nauseated, spiked a fever, and began to vomit. His vomiting grew intense and turned into dry heaves. At the same time, he became strangely passive. His face lost all appearance of life and set itself into an expressionless mask, with the eyeballs fixed, paralytic, and staring. The eyelids were slightly droopy, which gave him a peculiar appearance, as if his eyes were popping out of his head and half-closed at the same time. The eyeballs themselves seemed almost frozen in their sockets, and they turned bright red. The skin of his face turned yellowish, with brilliant starlike red speckles. He began to look like a zombie. His appearance frightened the temporary housekeeper. She didn’t understand the transformation in this man. His personality changed. He became sullen, resentful, angry, and his memory seemed to be blown away.”

Then the man gets on a plane…

“Perhaps he glances around, and then you see that his lips are smeared with something slippery and red, mixed with black specks, as if he has been chewing coffee grounds. His eyes are the color of rubies, and his face is an expressionless mass of bruises. The red spots, which a few days before had started out as starlike speckles, expanded and merged into huge, spontaneous purple shadows; his whole head is turning black-and-blue. The muscles of his face droop. The connective tissue in his face is dissolving, and his face appears to hang from underlying bone, as if the face is detaching itself from the skull. He opens his mouth and gasps into the bag, and the vomiting goes on endlessly. It will not stop, and he keeps bringing up liquid, long after his stomach should have been empty. The airsickness bag fills up to the brim with a substance known as vomit negro, or the black vomit. The black vomit is not really black; it is a speckled liquid of two colors, black and red, a stew of tarry granules mixed with fresh red arterial blood. It is hemorrhage, and it smells like a slaughterhouse. The black vomit is loaded with virus. It is highly infective, lethally hot, a liquid that smell of the vomit negro fills the passenger cabin. The airsickness bag is brimming with black vomit, so Monet closes the bag and rolls up the top. The bag bulging and softening, threatening to leak, and he hands it to a flight attendant.”

Let’s fast forward to the autopsy…

“They opened him up for an autopsy and found that his kidneys were destroyed and that his liver was dead. His liver had ceased functioning several days before he died. It was yellow, and parts of it had liquefied-it looked like the liver of a three-day-old cadaver. It was as if Monet had become a corpse before his death. Sloughing of the gut, in which the intestinal ling comes off, is another effect that is ordinarily seen in a corpse that is days old. What, exactly, was the cause of death? It was impossible to say because there were too many possible causes. Everything had gone wrong inside this man, absolutely everything, any one of which could have been fatal: the clotting, the massive hemorrhages, the liver turned into pudding, the intestines full of blood. Lacking words, categories, or language to describe what had happened, they called it, finally, a case of “fulminating liver failure”. His remain were placed in a waterproof bag and, according to one account, buried locally. ”

If that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will. Preston ends his book by concluding that eventually these super viruses will resurface. It is also notable that the USSR and the United States experimented with weaponized Marburg at one point.

Marburg is a form of Ebola virus, part of a class of hemorrhaging fever viruses. It has around a 25% mortality rate but its effects during the sickness are scary. It is extremely contagious and thus is handled in labs using biohazard suits.

It is an ssRNA virus, attaching to the NPC1 receptor on cells, and transcribing negative strand RNA to positive mRNA which then can produce the proteins required for replication. This is interesting because scientists are currently trying to develop an inhibitor for the NPC1 receptor, thus hopefully creating a cure for Ebola and its ilk, one of the deadliest killers on earth.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this post and I would encourage you to read the book – its a fascinating read!