THE VIRUS WITHIN: A Coming Epidemic

Book Review:

The Virus Within: A Coming Epidemic

How Medical Detectives are Tracking a Terrifying Virus That Hides in Almost All of Us

Nicholas Regush

This book makes plain, once and for all, that what we don’t know might well kill us. For the past ten years, ABC News journalist Nicholas Regush has been on the trail of a shadow virus, a little-known yet widely-distributed virus that has been implicated in a varied group of conditions including chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS. Tracing the Herculean efforts of a largely unsung group of medical researchers-cum-detectives, THE VIRUS WITHIN: A Coming Epidemic paints a chilling picture of a virus that threatens public health around the world.

The new virus is called Human Herpes Virus-6, or HHV-6. Identified in 1986 soon after the flurry of viral research that searched for the cause of AIDS, HHV-6 was seen initially as a possible co-factor in the onset of that disease. But as medical detectives got to know HHV-6 a little better, as they began to know what to look for and how to look for it, the virus started popping up in a number of unexpected places.

There was the case of 37-year-old Fred, who in 1988 came down with an odd set of symptoms. At first, it was fever, sore throat, and cough. Later, lung abnormalities surfaced, suggesting Legionnaires’ Disease, as did lung, urine and blood tests. But, unexpectedly, antibiotics and antibacterial medication did nothing to stop the onset of the illness. Fred’s kidneys failed, his liver began to give out; his arms and legs ceased functioning, and he was eventually placed on life support. AIDS was suggested, although there was no evidence of HIV, only the presence of some unusual, balloon-shaped cells. Finally — for reasons no one could figure out — Fred recovered after receiving high doses of powerful anti-inflammatory drugs. The cause of the balloon-shaped cells turned out to be HHV-6.

A year later, in Japan, Yoshizo, a three-month old baby, was rushed to the hospital with a fever accompanied by vomiting and jaundice — symptoms of roseola, the common childhood ailment. But his liver was quickly destroyed, and within a week he slipped into a deep coma, dying soon after, HHV-6 the culprit. Other cases involving HHV-6 and child fatalities are reported, including Nan, a one-year-old whose entire body was savaged by the virus.

In the summer of 1993, a scientist researching HHV-6 examined 34 tissue samples taken from nine people who died from AIDS. All 34 samples revealed that at the time of death there was active HHV-6 infection in the lungs, lymph nodes, liver, kidney, and spleen. HHV-6 had earlier been found to be an extremely efficient killer of T-4 cells — the human immune cells that target and destroy invaders.

And there was the mystery of Janet, of Tulsa, Oklahoma who was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. A few weeks later, she noticed that her cat was lethargic; the animal began to develop digestive problems, urinary tract infections, and walking difficulty. The cat later died. This case inspired a doctor to do a study of people with CFS and their pets. When he autopsied the pets that had died, he found swollen cells. When he injected the blood of one ill cat into another, a healthy animal, that cat also became ill. In the swollen cells he found signs of what looked like a virus.

And CFS is not believed to be an infectious disease — not yet.

As it turns out, at least 90% of the population has HHV-6. It is transmitted to infants by the time they’re one year old via the mother. It’s dormant in most of us, and we develop antibodies to it early on. But these antibodies decrease as we age, making us more susceptible to the havoc HHV-6 can wreak in the body. It remains unclear just how HHV-6 is reactivated in the body. Could HHV-6 be behind full-blown AIDS symptoms, including those symptoms experienced by people who appear to be HIV-negative? Is it the trigger for multiple sclerosis? Why do the pets of some people with chronic fatigue syndrome die suffering from chronic-fatigue-like symptoms?

At the forefront of the medical community efforts to answer these questions are Don Carrigan and Konnie Knox, an odd lab couple if ever there was one. Carrigan is a rebel researcher known for working around the clock, and for a decided lack of basic social skills. Carrigan’s disheveled appearance belies the fact that he is an especially focused, careful researcher. He has an able if unorthodox partner in Knox, who in her thirties, with several kids at home, decided to pursue her Ph.D., taking HHV-6 as her prime (yet highly risky) focus. THE VIRUS WITHIN follows both as they are squeezed out of their research base at the Diagnostic Virology Laboratory of the Medical College of Wisconsin in the middle of their landmark study of HHV-6. Determined to continue their important work on the virus, they set up their own independent lab in a converted laundry room.

In addition to clearly explaining the complex science of cells and HHV-6, Regush relates the struggles faced by scientists toiling in relative obscurity, and the professional dangers faced by those who dare to challenge the prevailing scientific wisdom. This is the story behind the science, and it will seem familiar to anyone who has flouted convention. We meet Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of HIV, as he grapples with HHV-6 while staunchly defending his HIV work against a small-but-growing group of dissenters. Among this group is Peter Duesberg, a controversial scientist who derides the AIDS boondoggle and continues to lob grenades toward the science establishment. Some scientists from Australia are convinced that what AIDS researchers are calling HIV hasn’t even been proven to be a virus and they have concluded that AIDS science has made an unprecedented mistake.

Science, and particularly medical research, is messy. Einstein noted that if you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor. The search for the roots of HHV-6 and all of the symptoms, conditions, and diseases it has been linked to, goes inelegantly forward. And THE VIRUS WITHIN, a strange-but-true medical thriller, with profound health implications for all of us, brings us closer to the truth about this elusive virus.

About the Author

Nicholas Regush is an award-winning and Emmy-nominated investigative medical and science journalist at ABC News, where he produces segments for World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. He also writes the popular “Second Opinion” column on health and medical issues for Regush was a reporter at the Montreal Gazette for 12 years, and has written investigative pieces for many magazines in the U.S. and Canada, including Mother Jones and Equinox. He has appeared on television and radio more than 100 times — to promote his writing, to serve as a news analyst, and to be interviewed on a wide range of issues. He lives in New York City and Montreal, Canada.

Source: Used with the permission of Dutton/Penguin Putnam Inc.

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