The deadly Ebola virus first emerged in the Sudan in 1976. Since then, human infections within central Africa have occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Gabon, and Uganda. While the exact origin of the disease remains unknown, the virus spreads via contact with the bodily fluids or tissues of infected humans and animals, living or dead. As of April 2009, Ebola had killed more than 1,200 people and possibly many thousands of great apes.
The western lowland gorilla—already a critically endangered species—may face extinction in the wild if the Ebola virus is not curtailed. Depending on the strain, the virus kills up to 95 percent of infected great apes. There is no cure, but an Ebola vaccine developed for humans may offer hope to our close genetic relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas. Still, the dense tropical forests and the animals’ tendency to hide would make immunizing great apes difficult. So, WCS health experts and their partners are testing methods to deliver oral vaccinations to great apes, which are picky eaters. During this vaccine research, the scientists are also collecting biological samples to test for other diseases that may threaten wild great apes.
The remoteness of many African communities can sometimes slow the flow of Ebola information and outbreak warnings. Cultural issues surrounding the isolation of sick patients and the consumption of bushmeat can also potentially hinder efforts to prevent Ebola virus transmission.
- Determine effective ways to deliver oral Ebola vaccines to great apes
- Increase the flow of the latest Ebola information to remote areas
- Guide existing local human healthcare programs on how to prevent animal-to-human and human-to-human transmission of Ebola
- Create preventive healthcare programs for great apes, tourists, and communities in areas where research and eco-tourism activities may transpire
- Train local personnel, field staff, and national agents working in great ape habitat to safely collect biological samples and other wildlife health data
What WCS is Doing
Throughout Ebola’s “hot spots,” our researchers monitor great ape health, collect diagnostic samples, and teach Ebola prevention awareness in at-risk communities. In the majority of cases, humans have contracted Ebola virus after being in contact with infected wildlife. Education is key to protecting these remote communities living in Ebola endemic regions. Providing local people—most importantly, hunters and healthcare professionals—with information on the precautions necessary to avoid contamination is a simple and effective measure to prevent further spread. In central Africa, WCS field vets distribute posters, pamphlets, and other education aids to remote villages. They also visit communities for informal discussions regarding Ebola and other zoonotic diseases. WCS created the Animal Health Monitoring Network, which encourages the rapid reporting of and response to wildlife mortalities, with a focus on hunters, who are typically the first people to encounter deceased great apes. In addition, our scientists have developed a non-invasive method of determining whether an animal has been exposed to Ebola--by testing the animal’s feces. Identifying animal outbreaks through monitoring and novel diagnostic tests will inform researchers as to how the virus is spreading and in what direction, serving as a warning system to the public health authorities in these countries.
In addition, by examining the behavior of great apes and other forest animals via camera traps, WCS teams and their partners are exploring how vaccines against Ebola that are developed for humans might also protect the animals from this deadly disease. It may be possible to administer the vaccine to the wild great apes orally. A photographic dataset is providing clues to the manner in which the disease might spread between forest species.
From the Newsroom
A WCS census confirms a healthy population of western lowland gorillas in and around Cameroon’s Deng Deng National Park.
Gorilla population surveys, conducted by WCS, have helped the government of Cameroon create a new national park, which will protect more than 600 gorillas and other threatened species, such as chimpanzees, forest elephants, buffalos, and bongo.