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Couple Tell O.C. Audience of Battling Ebola Virus : Health: They relate for convention of military surgeons in Anaheim the tale of their 1989 role in thwarting spread of deadly disease into U.S. city.

November 01, 1995|GREG HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — When one of the world's deadliest viruses threatened to escape into an American city in 1989, Gerald and Nancy Jaax were among the members of a U.S. Army biological strike team who worked around the clock for seven days to stop its spread.

The mission to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus, which was discovered in monkeys shipped to the United States from the Philippines, was considered a success, but the work got little attention outside the medical community.

"When it happened, it was very exciting to all of us, and we were pretty fired up. But when not a single person got sick, interest kind of fizzled," Col. Gerald Jaax said Tuesday before the Assn. of Military Surgeons of the United States, which is meeting in Anaheim this week.

But the public interest increased after the 1992 publication of an article by Richard Preston in the New Yorker. Preston then wrote the best-selling book "The Hot Zone" about the Ebola scare.

Gerald Jaax said that since the article was published, he and his wife have been busy on the lecture circuit, recounting their days in fully pressurized "space suits" in Reston, Va. There, they and others were ordered to kill 500 lab monkeys that had been infected with a virus that had killed nine out of 10 people in villages along the Ebola River in Africa.

There had been two previous outbreaks of the Ebola virus: one in 1976 in Zaire, where it had a 90% fatality rate; and one in Sudan in 1979, where the fatality rate was 60%. The virus attacks different organs and causes massive bleeding and often death. The virus is believed to be transmitted through bodily fluids and cannot be spread through casual contact.

"We became extremely alarmed when we became 100% sure of what we had, because this virus had never been isolated outside without a known connection to Africa," said Col. Nancy Jaax, a pathologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Maryland, where her husband is chief of veterinary medicine.

"How did the virus end up in monkeys in Asia, then in the U.S.? We tried to find out. To this day, we don't know," she said. "There's been more questions than answers. Is this Philippine or African? It was killing monkeys; why didn't it kill people?"

During Tuesday's presentation, the couple told of the seven dramatic days in Reston during which volunteers had to perform their lab work in precautionary "space suits" that protected them.

The team fought exhaustion and 95-degree heat when air conditioning in the building malfunctioned. The suits, which took more than half an hour to put on, were also cumbersome. They limited movement and visibility and caused the wearer to sweat profusely.

They also worked with the fear of becoming infected, which meant they could not use scalpels to perform their work.

"We believed that if any of those drops of blood were to get into a cut on the skin, it would be paramount to a death sentence," Gerald Jaax said. "We believed that this was the killer Ebola."

The virus turned out to be a less virulent strain--which was named Ebola Reston--and four animal handlers who had contracted the virus did not get sick and did not need treatment.

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