Ebola – The Disease From The Forests

Photo - Noah Goodrich.  Sierra Leone Forest

Photo – Noah Goodrich.
Sierra Leone Forest

Ebola is sweeping through West Africa, affecting Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. As of the 16th October, 4,5oo people have died from the disease and 9,000 have been infected. The international response is painfully slow, but after Ebola came to the USA, the rush to help and cure the disease is underway. The WHO has said this is the most complex and largest outbreak of Ebola. The first outbreak of Ebola came in 1976 near the Ebola River in the Democratic of the Congo.

In light of the recent Ebola outbreak, some researchers are connecting deforestation in countries such as Liberia to the disease, noting that the change in landscape is bringing wildlife in closer contact with humans.

In light of the recent Ebola outbreak, some researchers are connecting deforestation in countries such as Liberia to the disease, noting that the change in landscape is bringing wildlife in closer contact with humans.

Ebola is a zoonotic disease. What causes the transmission of the disease from animals to humans? It remains to be seen. However, the driving force for the increase in zoonotic diseases is clear: humans are encroaching into the wild and eating bushmeat. The recent outbreak most likely occurred when patient zero (thought to be a two year old boy in Guinea) came into contact with bushmeat or a fruit bat. Fruit bats are believed to be Ebola’s resevoir host, meaning that the bat does not become ill but carries the virus.

Bushmeat represents a crisis of its own. Hunting threatens to make many species of wildlife extinct. The crisis has its origins in poverty. People simply need to eat animals to survive, a situation that is made worse by deforestation and the fragmentation of natural habitats.

The Fruit Bat. Assumed to be the Ebola host reservoir.

The Fruit Bat. Assumed to be the Ebola host reservoir.

A woman stands by a table table selling smoked bush meat at a specialist market in the Yopougon area of Abidjan.

A woman stands by a table table selling smoked bush meat at a specialist market in the Yopougon area of Abidjan.

Humans have moved into terrestrial and aquatic environments and are placing increasing pressure on these fragile systems. The environment is becoming altered. Extracting resources, intensifying food production and increasing populations are increasing the chance of zoonotic diseases infecting humans.

Seasonal droughts, winds, thunderstorms, landslides, floods and heatwaves are contributing factors to the spread of Ebola. Could the unusual downpours and droughts seen in West and Central Africa be a result of climate change?

The effects in the animal kingdom are just as devastating. Ebola kills 80% of gorillas that it infects. Combined with illegal poaching, these animals are being driven to extinction. Wiped from the face of the earth. Peter Walsh of the University of Cambridge in England studied gorillas in a Congolese wildlife protection area in the early 2000s. At that time, two Ebola outbreaks struck. Ninety to 95 percent of the gorillas simply disappeared. Without controlling Ebola in the wildlife, there will be little control of Ebola in the human population.

Once West Africa was blanketed with thick forests, but now deforestation is decimating the once bountiful region. It cannot be surprising that Ebola resurfaced when humans delved deeper into the wild. Guinea’s rainforests have been reduced by 80%, while Liberia has sold logging rights to over half its forests. Within the next few years Sierra Leone is on track to be completely deforested. The fruit bat is becoming concentrated in the patchwork that is their habitat. Mining has increased in the region and so humans are coming into contact with the bats as they work.

Deforestation in Liberia. A main driving force in West Africa for the spread of Ebola.

Deforestation in Liberia. A main driving force in West Africa for the spread of Ebola.

mine sierra leone africa deforestation
Industrial kimberlite diamond pit mine in Sierra Leone, West Africa owned by Koidu holdings, one of a number of international mining companies who have come to Sierra Leone in search of diamonds. Mining is among major factors driving deforestation of the region. Photographer: David Levene

Globally, the illegal wildlife trade market accounts for some $10-20 billion annually, comprising both live and dead species. As wildlife trade, illegal and legal booms, so does the chance of disease transmission. The trade also threatens livestock, native wildlife populations and ecosystem health.This is only one issue linked with Ebola, but the international trade could ship the virus around the country.

A 2012 article in the Onderstepoort Journal of Veterinary Research notes that since the mid-1990s, Ebola outbreaks in Africa have closely tracked drastic changes in forest ecosystems. “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,” the researchers concluded.

Liberian nurses bury the body of an Ebola victim in the Banjor Community on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia

Liberian nurses bury the body of an Ebola victim in the Banjor Community on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia

Ebola is showing the world how our actions will affect us. Governments should consider giving more power to environmental sciences that may have offered prevention methods before this outbreak took hold. The world knows that unsustainable deforestation is unfavourable and if the resources had been better managed and the wildlife monitored for outbreaks, possibly Ebola would not have reached a young boy in Guinea. Ebola is an opportunist. Humans became an opportunity. It must be accepted that humans played a major part in the transmission and spread of Ebola.

The World Health Organization’s Assistant Director, General Bruce Aylward, declared that the Ebola epidemic has become a health crisis “unparalleled in modern times.”

“Ebola is a problem that belongs to the world because it is a disease that knows no boundaries.” – Ghanian President John Dramani Mahama

Ebola is deadly. It is ripping apart families, destroying national economies and creating fear all over the world. This is Ebola.

Ebola is a illness of isolation. A man lies in the street, suspected of dying from Ebola.

Ebola is a illness of isolation. A man lies in the street, suspected of dying from Ebola.

A man infected by Ebola lies in the street in Guinea.

A man infected by Ebola lies in the street in Guinea.

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