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Demon In The Freezer

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The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston is an intriguing book that discusses the anthrax terrorist attacks after 9/11 and how smallpox might become a future bioterrorist threat to the world. The book provides a brief history of the smallpox disease including details of an outbreak in Germany in 1970. The disease was eradicated in 1979 due to the World Health Organization’s aggressive vaccine program. After the virus was no longer a treat the World Health Organization discontinued recommending the smallpox vaccination. In conjunction, inventory of the vaccine was decreased to save money. The virus was locked up in two labs, one in the United States and one in Russia. However, some feel the smallpox virus exists elsewhere. Dr. Peter Jahrling and a team of scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Maryland became concerned terrorists had access to the smallpox virus and planed to alter the strain to become more resistant. These doctors conducted smallpox experiments to discover more effective vaccines in case the virus were released. Preparedness for a major epidemic is discussed as well as the ease with which smallpox can be bioengineered.

The Demon in the Freezer is divided into eight sections. It begins with the upsetting details surrounding the sudden death of Robert Stevens, just three weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001. An autopsy showed Mr. Stevens died of inhalation anthrax. Subsequent anthrax illnesses among people exposed to letters laced with anthrax frightened the nation. Some thought the letters might also contain smallpox, but fortunately this was not the case. “There had been only eighteen cases of inhalation anthrax in the past hundred years in the United States, and the last reported case had been twenty-three years earlier” (5). It is no wonder that people became alarmed at the threat of a major anthrax outbreak.

The book jumps to a distressing story about Peter Los in 1970 in West Germany who became ill due to smallpox. After ten days he was hospitalized but medical staff did not realize he had smallpox, which is highly contagious. Preston gives vivid descriptions of the disease and how it ravages the body. Los survived his illness, but caused an epidemic that killed many others that had become exposed to him. “Today, the people who plan for a smallpox emergency can’t get the image of the Meschede hospital out of their minds. It is a lesson in the way smallpox particles have a propensity to drift long distances, and in how a victim of the virus can escape notice for days in a hospital” (47). This epidemic began the aggressive campaign by the World Health Organization to eradicate the disease through quarantine and vaccination.

Scientific theories about how the smallpox virus jumped into the human species are contained in section three. It is thought smallpox may have jumped from animals to humans “somewhere between ten thousand and three thousand years ago” (51). A number of poxviruses are also analyzed and the animals they affect. The eradication program details are outlined and a deadline of ten years was set for completion of the program by the World Health Organization. The progression of the eradication is highlighted. “In 1976, a year before the last natural cases of smallpox occurred, the WHO formally asked all laboratories holding smallpox to either destroy their stocks or send them to the two Collaborating Centres” (78). It was thought that these two locations were the only official places where smallpox existed after the eradication was complete. One of these freezers is in Atlanta and the other is in Russia. Preston considered smallpox the demon that became



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