Pits in the ground from mining, forests stripped of trees and water poisoned by toxic materials are among the lesser known culprits in the current outbreak of the deadly Ebola disease. In less than a year’s time, the virus has migrated from its “reservoir” in fruit bats to humans who may have supplemented their diets and income with infected animals recovered from the forest floor.
With wildlife squeezed into ever-smaller parcels by the expansion of foreign corporations, fruit bats carrying Zaire ebola virus are suspected of migrating from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the virus first appeared in 1976, to the West African nation of Guinea and from there to Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The bats’ habitat in the former Zaire was also disrupted by long periods of conflict. Thus, the devastation of African natural resources, combined with recurrent war, could be considered among the triggers of the now rampant epidemic.
Another possible link to the spread of the virus is believed to be unsterile medical injections. Injectable drugs, syringes and needles are available in rural villages, where injection by traditional healers and self-injection are common practice. But between 50 percent and 90 percent of these injections are deemed unsafe, according to an article in the publication Viewpoint.
These insights were among those gained from a discussion lead by a panel of experts at a recent Africa Roundtable discussion titled “We Could Have Stopped This,” organized by the Global Information Network.
Speakers at the roundtable included Stephanie Rupp, noted anthropologist and researcher in the Congo River Basin; Ernest Drucker, epidemiologist with prior experience in Africa and a researcher in HIV/AIDS; and Nvasekie Konneh, Liberian writer, author and community activist just returned from Liberia.
Despite a link to Ebola, any effort to eliminate bats would be “an ecological disaster,” according to Fabian Leendertz, a disease ecologist at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin. “Bats pollinate plants and devour insects. And bat hunts would also only increase human contact with potentially infected animals.”
Meanwhile, efforts to provide the three endangered countries with medical supplies are increasing. Humanitarian groups sent nearly $6 million in medical supplies to West Africa, including gloves, masks, gowns, goggles, saline, antibiotics, oral rehydration solution and pain killers. Charities contributing to the airlift include the Clinton Foundation, Direct Relief, Last Mile Health, Africare and the Wellbody Alliance.
The United Nations has said that controlling the epidemic will require the world to increase its efforts twentyfold and to spend $1 billion in the next six months. The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously last week to launch a medical mission to West Africa to fight Ebola, and President Barack Obama announced that he is sending 3,000 American troops.