From: Daniel Stiles, MONGABAY.COM, More from this Affiliate
Published August 6, 2014 04:13 PM

How Did Ebola Zaire Get To Guniea?

Is the great ape trade responsible for the current outbreak of Ebola?


The vicious Ebola virus outbreak that has already killed more than 800 people this year, in addition to sowing panic, fear and confusion throughout West Africa, was not a strain endemic to the region as initially believed. Instead the University of Edinburgh found that the strain is the same as the Ebola Zaïre found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly Zaïre. TheRobert-Koch Institute in Germany confirmed the finding.

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In fact, this is the first outbreak of Ebola Zaïre seen anywhere in West Africa, and it is already the most severe in recorded history, both in number of cases and fatalities. The fatality rate varies from 50 to 90 percent of those infected, and there is no cure or vaccine—it is one of the most deadly diseases on the planet. Victims bleed to death and organs fail as they hemorrhage internally and from every orifice.

No wonder Kamono Moriba, a volunteer with the Red Cross Society of Guinea who lives in Guéckédou, where the first cases of this epidemic were reported, said "I was so scared to die."

"People tell us that the humanitarian workers have brought the disease”They also say that for several decades they have consumed bushmeat without contracting any disease, and question why it is surfacing now," relates Moriba.

The original explanation for the virus breaking out in this remote part of southeastern Guinea, near the borders of Sierra Leone and Liberia, was that people had eaten infected bushmeat. Fruit bats are thought to be the natural reservoir of all strains of Ebola virus, and they can pass it on to other species in various ways, including through their feces, dropping pieces of half-eaten fruit that other animals eat, or by being butchered and eaten themselves as bushmeat.

Bats are a popular food in West Africa. I remember seeing their flayed, smoked carcasses looking like macabre crucifixions on wooden crosses sold in railway stations and by the roadside when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Côte d'Ivoire many years ago.

I could imagine being infected in a way similar to that shown in the movie Contagion. A bulldozer clears an area of forest in Africa for a new piggery. Then an infected bat drops a piece of nibbled banana, which is scoffed by a pig that later ends up in a restaurant kitchen. The cook, who doesn't wash his hands, infects Gwyneth Paltrow's character, setting off a terrifying scenario, similar to that unfolding now in West Africa.

But Moriba's question remains apt. Why is it breaking out now almost 40 years after the first recognized Ebola epidemic appeared in 1976 in the DRC?

A detailed genetic study of the virus in Guinea published in May in PLOS Currents concluded that "the outbreak in Guinea is likely caused by a Zaïre ebolavirus lineage that has spread from Central Africa into Guinea and West Africa in recent decades, and does not represent the emergence of a divergent and endemic virus."

A second report published in June also supports this view, determining that it was "extremely unlikely that this virus falls outside the genetic diversity of the Zaïre lineage." Their analysis "unambiguously supports Guinea 2014 EBOV as a member of the Zaïre lineage".

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