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Climate Change, Development May Be Hastening Ebola’s Spread

Climate Change, Development May Be Hastening Ebola’s Spread

December 11, 2014

Medical Research

Hutch News  — When it comes to Ebola, we’ve been worried about the wrong thing, says virologist Dr. Leslie Lobel, of BGU’s Shraga Segal Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Genetics.

Media speculation that the virus could mutate to become airborne and be transmitted as easily as the flu caused such public concern that the World Health Organization in the fall felt compelled to issue a statement saying there is no evidence or anticipation that that will happen.

Dr. Leslie Lobel

Dr. Leslie Lobel

But more than cause panic, the rumors distracted attention from what we really should be worried about: all that we don’t know about the Ebola virus’s natural reservoir and its ecosystem, says Dr. Lobel.

“The three key questions to ask about an infectious disease outbreak are: ‘What is the reservoir? What is the route of transmission? And what is the ecosystem?’ To control viruses, we need to control all these things.

The only answer that’s known is route of transmission,” Dr. Lobel recently told a packed auditorium of scientists the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch) in Seattle. In addition to cancer, Fred Hutch is a leader in infectious disease research.

A natural reservoir refers to an animal that can harbor the virus without being killed by it, allowing it to live and multiply between outbreaks in humans.

The African fruit bat, for example, is the natural reservoir for the Marburg virus, which causes a similar severe hemorrhagic fever. Many believe that fruit bats, which, according to Dr. Lobel are “all over the place” in Africa and hard to control, are also the reservoir for the Ebola virus. But Dr. Lobel pointed out that has not been proven.

A virus’s ecosystem means the environment in which its reservoir resides — which is why identifying the correct reservoir is so important — as well as the way people live and interact with that environment.

Africa is “a virus-rich ecosystem,” says Dr. Lobel, in part because people live closely with animals and with each other, allowing viruses and other pathogens to pass among them.

Climate change, globalization and rapid development of previously undeveloped regions have all made Africa more vulnerable to devastating diseases. All disrupt the habitats of virus hosts and bring them and humans closer together.

“Whatever the ecosystem of Ebola is, it’s being encroached in a big way,” says Dr. Lobel. “With globalization and global warming, we’re going to continually be encroaching on ecosystems. It’s going to be a challenge moving forward.”

Read more on the Fred Hutch website >>