At one time in my life, I was an Army “wife.” My spouse, only the second female medical entomologist in the Army, was assigned to USAMRIID, the Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Walter Reed and Ft. Detrick, Maryland. Dengue, Korean Hemorrhagic Fever, Q Fever, Equine Encephalitis and Anthrax were common topics at dinner. As was Ebola.
At the time, Ebola had only recently been identified, but it was one of several emerging diseases to which USAMRIID scientists were paying close attention.
In the years since, much has been learned about Ebola and other “zoonotic” (originating in animals) diseases, though much remains unknown in the still-young field of epidemiology. Research suggests some species of bats are a reservoir for Ebola, SARS and other serious infectious diseases, but how these diseases jump to humans is still unknown, though eating bats, primates and other animals that may contract the disease or eating fruit contaminated by bat droppings are possible avenues of transmission.
BCI has worked hard over the past 30-plus years to reduce people’s fear and persecution of bats, but it’s possible that bats will be viewed differently after this crisis ends. The Ebola outbreak may lead to widespread efforts to kill or displace bat colonies in West Africa and beyond, without clear evidence that doing so will make people safer.
Such a response could, in fact, drive bats escaping efforts to cull them into closer contact with people as they seek out new roosts.
Bats are an essential ingredient in ecosystem health, and the link between human well-being and the environment is well documented. This concept is known as “One Health” (see page 13), and it argues that the best way to minimize outbreaks of zoonotic disease is to ensure bats and other wildlife have intact ecosystems in which to live.
Cutting down forests and hunting wildlife for bushmeat or the illegal wildlife trade exposes more people to zoonotic disease. If there are any silver linings to this terrible tragedy, they could include more effective medical treatments and more rapid development of a vaccine for Ebola and other zoonotic diseases (see “Can Bats Help?” on page 11); widespread education on the dangers of eating bushmeat; and the creation, and better protection, of parks and preserves.
It’s not difficult to imagine, conversely, that desperate governments and communities will feel compelled to eradicate bats on sight for years to come to help ensure such a tragedy never happens again. BCI will do what it can, working with international health agencies, governments and communities to help strike a One-Health balance that better protects people as well as wildlife.
Our hearts go out to the people of West Africa and everywhere this deadly disease manifests.