Before Ebola

What's scarier than the ebola virus? Trekking into the dark jungles of Northern Angola and seeking out ebola amidst a major outbreak. That is what the author of this book, Peter Apps, did in 2005.

Years ago I read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, which is an amazing book that I recommend, about how in 1989 the ebola virus appeared at a research lab in Reston, VA. At the time, ebola was like a terrifying campfire story about a mythical virus that liquifies your insides. But it was a virus restricted to villages in Western Africa that had little chance of spreading to the developed West.

Fast forward to 2014: over the last year the dialogue over ebola has been impossible to ignore as Western Africa has struggled, and failed, to contain the virus as it spreads to major cities in Africa and around the world. In the current epidemic there are over 15,000 deaths with 95% of those occurring in only three countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

In light of this renewed worldwide attention on the virus, Reuters correspondent Peter Apps published this book about his experience confronting the Marburg virus in Angola in 2005.

The Marburg Virus & Peter Apps

Marburg virus

Ebola and Marburg are two varieties of filoviruses, which encode their genome in the form of single-stranded RNA (in layman's terms, they are known as thread viruses). They both cause severe disease in human and primates in the form of viral hemorrhagic fevers with a very high mortality rate. They are extremely efficient killers. So much so that their lethality greatly limits their mobility – viruses of this type kill infected hosts too quickly to spread.

Before Ebola is about Peter Apps' first journey into Africa, to report on the spread of Marburg within northern Angola for Reuters.

The bulk of this book takes place in the Uíge province of Angola, a mythically isolated and dark region of the country, where Marburg suddenly and mysteriously started killing. The Reuters news team went into the region to investigate, speaking to fear-stricken locals and following a path of corpses that the virus had left behind.

In most cases the infected, and the families that attempt to care for them, have almost no concept of how the virus works. As with the AIDS epidemic in Africa, a fundamental social misunderstanding of the nature of the illness prevents an effective response. They refuse to burn or bury victims, but choose instead to leave the corpses lying idly about, afraid to touch them as the virus moves unabated from one host to the next. Health workers, themselves not knowing what to do, died by the dozens.

Fortunately for Peter Apps, his journey into the dark heart of Angola lasted only a few days.

Favorite Passages

"We took our leave and shook hands. In Uíge, it felt a much more meaningful gesture."

"Looking back on those days, nine years later, I am trying to gauge what it taught me. As I write this, the largest-ever outbreak of Ebola is terrorizing West Africa. Thousands are dead, including well over 100 health workers. Still, more are volunteering to fly in. For whatever reason, this Ebola has managed to make the jump that other strains and Marburg never managed. It has leapt from isolated outbreaks to major cities and multiple countries."

"Fear is a complicated thing when it comes to public health. After a point, even sophisticated knowledge about the danger of cancer does not stop people from smoking. HIV/ AIDS has failed to put southern Africans in particular off sex."


This book reads like a diary entry detailing the events of Peter Apps' trip into the Angolan hinterland. It is very compact and very personal, but it did not grip me. It's a sensible report of the author's brief exposure to the Marburg virus in Africa, but it is not extraordinary. If you're interested in reading about ebola, I would first recommend The Hot Zone by Richard Preston.


4 Stars

Before Ebola: Dispatches from a Deadly Outbreak on Kindle