Ebola in Congo Now!: Man & Gorilla in Great Danger

29 Aug

World Widlife Federation, 2012

No sooner did the outbreak of Ebola in western Uganda subside than Ebola Hemorrhagic Virus struck again in Isiro, the capital city of Haut- Uele District located in the north-eastern region of the DR Congo. It is about 50 km from Isiro to the Ugandan border and travel does occur between residents of this city and Kabaale District where the Uganda outbreak took place in July of 2012. The doctors responsible for treating the Congolese patients stricken with Ebola maintain that there is no connection between the Congolese and Ugandan outbreaks. Ten people brought to the town have died and six more may have been infected with the Ebola virus in the first weeks of August, 2012. The strain of Ebola that hit Isiro has been identified as Ebola – Bundibugyo, a less deadly strain of the virus than the strain that hit Kigadi, Uganda where 16 people died of the more deadly strain Ebola – Sudan.  Although the Bundibugyo strain is still considered dangerous and deadly, the mortality rate is somewhat lower, 25% to 35% compared to the 70% mortality rate credited to the Sudan type.

On August 3, 2012, one of five Ugandan prisoners from Kibaale Prison suffering from Ebola- like symptoms was brought to Kigadi Hospital for treatment but escaped the very night he arrived. Rumors ran rampant around Kabaale district that he would eventually spread the disease throughout the rest of Uganda and in the DR Congo- but that was not the case.

Ebola is spread by contact with bodily fluids from humans and primates. There is no vaccine to prevent the disease at this time although researchers are working on the creation of a vaccination serum for use with both human and primates. Ebola has a strange history. According to The Center for Disease Control: Yearly Statistics for the Ebola Virus (CDC, 2012), the first cases were reported in the year 1976 in the country of Sudan and during the same year in the DR Congo (Zaire). In 1977 it was reported in the DR Congo and in the Sudan again in 1979. Fifteen years go by with no reported outbreaks of Ebola and in 1994 one case was reported in the Tai National Park, Ivory Coast. Ebola is very prevalent after this but infects small numbers of people in the 1990’s and only in the countries of Gabon and the DR Congo. Ebola outbreaks continue and are reported in 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997 in Gabon and 1995, 1996, 1997 in the DR Congo. Then in 2000 Ebola is reported for the first time in Uganda and 425 people are infected; this is the largest number ever recorded in any country. It should be noted that there is a civil war raging through northern Uganda at the time and this is where the outbreaks occured.  The years between 2001 and 2007 show that outbreaks occurred in three countries: Gabon, Sudan, and the DR Congo. It takes seven years for Uganda to see its next outbreak from 2007-2008. This time a new strain appears in Uganda, Ebola- Bundibugyo but it does not infect as many people as the Sudan strain did in the year 2000. By 2008-2009 small outbreaks continue to occur in the DR Congo and in 2011 only one person reportedly dies in Uganda. Now in 2012 Ebola returns to western Uganda and to north-eastern DR Congo with small numbers of infected patients and lower mortality rates in humans.

Although not reported as thoroughly or as often, there is an animal population that is being adversely affected by the Ebola virus as well. It is the primate group- especially the Great Apes. These primates are highly susceptible to human ailments like measles, scabies, and intestinal parasites. Since they interact with humans, they have become infected with a range of illnesses and diseases- with Ebola being the most deadly. In the year 2004, several hundred gorillas died due to an outbreak of Ebola in Odzala National Park in DR Congo.

The great apes such as the mountain gorilla share approximately 97-98% of human DNA, because of this they can catch diseases from humans. The gorilla is the largest primate in existence today. It is an omnivore, which means that it eats both plants and other animals. But what it really means is that the Gorilla primarily eats vegetation but will eat insects such as termites and ants if it gets the chance.

In December of 2006, National Geographic reported that Ebola was moving across central and western Africa and was wiping out 90% of the lowland gorillas in its path. It also stated  that most of the remaining gorillas lived within 125 miles of the 2006 outbreak. Ebola seemed to be moving at 31miles per year across these regions. According to Peter Walsh, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany, “Twenty-five percent of all gorillas in the world have died from Ebola in the past twelve years.”

What hasn’t been determined though is what’s occurring between humans and primates as each group becomes infected with Ebola. Are we catching the disease from the primates or are they catching the disease from us? Or is something far more dangerous at work? We know that humans have become infected with Ebola from eating the meat of primates and birds infected with the virus. We suspect that it is the fruit bat that carries the Ebola virus between outbreaks but is immune to the virus itself. We know that gorillas and other primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos have become infected with the same strains of Ebola as humans.

According to Dr. Khan of the Center for Disease Control, “The infections in Uganda caught from animals represent 75 % of all the emerging infectious diseases, and so if you’re really going to tackle these diseases, you can’t just focus on people. You need to focus on the animals, you need to focus on the environment, and on the interface where those come together to decrease infectious diseases worldwide.”

And animals such as the gorilla are in turn catching diseases from humans. In 2002, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka, a veterinarian who founded the nonprofit organization Conservation Through Public Health, to tackle diseases that could be transmitted between humans, livestock, and wildlife in areas surrounding Uganda’s national parks. She saw gorillas dying from simple human skin infections such as scabies. “Gorillas were losing hair and developing white, scaly skin. The baby gorilla had lost almost all its hair and was very thin. And the mother had also lost almost all of her hair where she was carrying the baby,” Kalema-Zikusoka recalls. “The baby was also making crying sounds, which is extremely abnormal for gorillas. I actually went and visited a human doctor friend of mine, because they could have picked it up from people. And she said it was scabies.

Dr. William Karesh heads the Global Health Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “When we say that there’s human health, or there’s livestock health, or there’s wildlife health, we just made that up. There’s only one health,” he says. “If animals are the source of a disease, we want to break the chain from people getting it. If people are the source of disease, we need to break the chain going in the animal direction.”

The mountain gorilla is the largest of all the gorillas and is the most endangered. The world’s remaining mountain gorillas currently reside in three different countries in Central Africa but actually inhabit the same, small region in a trio of national parks located within the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. They all share the same geographic area. The Gorillas’ territory is the same, open stretch of land that extends beyond each country’s borders and the gorillas are free to travel back and forth between the three parks: Virunga National Park in north-eastern DR Congo, Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in south western Uganda, and Volcanoes National Park in northern Rwanda. 

The mountain gorilla is one of the most endangered species.  According to the latest World Wildlife Federation data (WWF, 2012) only fifty thousand gorillas currently live in central Africa- about 2,500 eastern low land gorillas and six hundred mountain gorillas. Most primate biologists feel that the mountain gorilla is on the verge of extinction and will not survive the latest outbreaks of the Ebola virus. Remember that as humans in the region suffer from outbreaks of the Ebola virus so do the great apes in the area.

The Western lowland gorillas have the largest population of the four types of gorillas living in central Africa- but even they have are considered “Critically Endangered” in the wild. One of the most significant factors for this decline has been directly connected to “death from disease”. The WWF estimates that the total lowland population in the wild has been cut in half over the last 25 years. These gorillas face severe danger even in national parks and almost half of their protected habitats now contain one or more strains of the Ebola virus.

The Ebola virus is the most deadly disease ever to have threatened African primates in Central Africa. During the last twenty years the Ebola- Zaire strain of the virus has killed about one third of the world’s gorilla population in Gabon and the DR Congo. And about 30% of the world’s chimpanzees have been killed by another strain, Ebola- Cote d’Ivoire. Ebola –Zaire is the most deadly form of the virus and causes death in humans in 80 to 90% of cases.

It has been proven that apes and humans are able to pass the same strains of the Ebola virus along to one another – making specific outbreaks all that more difficult to end. More and more humans are encroaching on the primate’s territories as refugees in search of arable land settle there so are in closer contact with wild animals. Primates are even capable of passing the Ebola virus on to one other: to other members of their own families, to different social groups, and even between species.

A successful Ebola vaccine trial was conducted on chimps in 2011 and led to the development of a potential vaccine for wild gorillas. The project was housed at the New Iberia Research Center, at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. The vaccination serum was manufactured by Integrated Biotherapeutics. So far the vaccine has been extensively tested to determine its safety and has shown no signs of exceptionally high protective immune responses among its test participants. The next step will be to create a way to give it to the Central African primates especially the low and highland gorillas in a manner that will not threaten them. The dense undergrowth in the lush tropical forests where they live and their reclusive nature may make immunizing them especially difficult; so methods will have to be created, such as the distribution of oral vaccines that do not scare them or disrupt their daily routines. Many scientists are not convinced that this can be done in time. But the clock is ticking and for many, like Peter Walsh, “ if we don’t move right away- we may have already run out of time.”

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS, 2012) is on the move and is busy fulfilling the following goals:

Determine effective ways to deliver an oral vaccine to the great apes

Insure the flow of the latest Ebola information to remote areas in central Africa

Guide existing community programs on how to prevent “animal to human” and “human to animal” transmissions of Ebola

Create healthcare programs for the apes, tourists, and villagers of rural communities in the area where all three groups can be effectively serviced

Train medical personnel field staff, and national agents working in the great apes’ habitats to safely work with the animals and to collect all biological samples and other wildlife health data

Hopefully we are not too late!

Kat Nickerson           Kingston, RI        USA

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