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article imageEbola, deforestation and fruit bats: What they have in common

By Karen Graham     Oct 6, 2014 in Health
As a human tragedy unfolds before the world's eyes, it may seem too little, too late to wonder if the Ebola epidemic now raging in several West African nations could have been prevented. If Ebola can be stopped, we need to keep it from recurring.
The first recorded outbreak of the Ebola virus disease occurred Yambuku in Northern Zaire in 1976. The virus had already taken a heavy toll at the Mission Hospital in Kinshasa by the time specimens of the then "unknown" illness were sent to the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium.
At first, the unknown disease was thought to resemble a Marburg-like disease, but subsequent testing at the CDC later confirmed it was instead a new virus, ultimately called Ebola virus. It was morphologically similar to Marburg, but antigenically different. In this first recorded outbreak, the death rate was 83 percent. In 2000, the name of the virus was changed to Zaire Ebola virus. After a couple more name changes, in 2010, the name Ebola was again made official.
Africa is the second largest and second most populous continent in the world. To most Westerners, Africa is a diverse landmass, with open plains and thick jungles harbouring strange tropical diseases, as well as countries still emerging into the 21st century. But few people realize what has been happening on this huge and ecologically diverse continent.
The denuding of Africa's forest lands
According to a 2008 United Nations Environment Program(UNEP) report, deforestation is affecting Africa at twice the world rate. In 2011, a study by the University of Pennsylvania Dept. of African Studies backed up the UNEP report. The report estimated Africa was losing over four million hectares of forests every year. Some sources claimed that in West Africa, 90 percent of the region's virgin forests are now gone.
Growing human population has increased deforestation in Africa  which reduces chimpanzee habitat  dr...
Growing human population has increased deforestation in Africa, which reduces chimpanzee habitat, driving the species toward extinction, and accelerating climate change.
the Jane Goodall Institute
Scientists believe there may be a correlation between deforestation and the rise and severity of Ebola outbreaks, particularly this year's epidemic. The common factors linking the numerous outbreaks of the Ebola virus are growing human activity and the deforestation of previously untouched, or virgin forests. This premise is based on a study published in Onderstepoort Journal of Veterinary Research, June, 2012.
The study also described the numbers of contact cases in earlier outbreaks as being due to human contact with dead gorillas or chimpanzees infected with the Ebola virus. The study went on to describe the hunting and eating of fruit bats with the transmission of Ebola to humans. So what does deforestation and the eating of fruit bats have in common with Ebola?
The authors of the 2012 study wrote: “The increase in Ebola outbreaks since 1994 is frequently associated with drastic changes in forest ecosystems in tropical Africa. Extensive deforestation and human activities in the depth of the forests may have promoted direct or indirect contact between humans and a natural reservoir of the virus.”
Deforestation in West African nations
According to the Washington Post, The director of Environment, ECOWAS Commission, Mr, Johnson Buanuh said forest loss in West Africa is the highest in the world. He said the main reasons for this were population explosion, bush burning and extensive farming. In Guinea, rainforests have shrunk to less than one-fifth their original size.
In Liberia, over the half the nation's forest lands have been sold off for logging, totally bypassing environmental laws. It is not surprising, but there was no benefit to the local people. Logging, iron ore and other mineral deposits have been stripped from the land, with little or nothing going to the welfare of the population. In Sierra Leone, illegal logging has also been a problem.
How does deforestation lead to Ebola outbreaks?
What do the forests and bats matter when talking about the Ebola outbreak going on in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Liberia? Plenty. All the forests that have been cut down were home to fruit bats. With their forest homes being removed, fruit bats, Ebola's reservoir host, are concentrating in what is left of the forests, bringing them into closer contact with the human population.
Fruit bats are carriers of the Ebola virus. Humans can become infected from ingesting fruits the bat...
Fruit bats are carriers of the Ebola virus. Humans can become infected from ingesting fruits the bats have nibbled on or coming into contact with the urine or feces.
Jon Dawson
The mining of bauxite, magnesium, gold and diamonds has become big business in the region, forcing thousands of workers to travel miles through bat-infested forests. While fruit bats are eaten by people, the bat is only a carrier of the virus. It doesn't become ill. The first case of Ebola this year in the youngster in Guinea was not due to his eating bat meat. According to the Guardian, He probably ate bat-contaminated fruit. This could also be how Ebola got into the gorilla population.
As Guardian writer J.A. Ginsberg says, you can't have public health without environmental health, and Ginsburg is right. Of course, deforestation didn't cause Ebola, it has probably been hiding in the forests for a very long time. But with the loss of those forests, poor health care, poor sanitary conditions and a population that has gone through civil war, and abject poverty, it reminds one of the "perfect storm." Everything came together at just the right moment in time, creating a devastating Ebola epidemic, worse than any of the previous outbreaks.
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