Ebola epidemics may be forcing African primate populations into extinction

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Population surveys of gorillas and chimpanzees in Africa reveal that massive declines in ape populations over the last several decades correspond to Ebola outbreaks on the continent. According to one calculation by the Jane Goodall Institute, Ebola outbreaks have caused the death of around a third of the world’s gorilla and chimpanzee populations.

There are several factors in addition to Ebola that are contributing to the rapidly declining ape population in Africa, including illegal trading in bushmeat and deforestation. Ebola, however, ranks as one of the most deadly factors. Ebola mortality rates for African apes are even higher than they are for humans. The mortality rate for Ebola-infected gorillas is 95 percent, and for chimpanzees, 77 percent. Similar to Ebola outbreaks among humans, the Ebola strikes apes in the form of sudden, deadly outbreaks. One outbreak in 1995 is said to have killed more than 90 percent of the gorillas in Gabon’s Minkebe Park.

Although researchers are certain that fruit bats can carry Ebola, they are not entirely sure about how the virus is transmitted between bats and apes. One theory is that while fruit bats are eating fruits in the trees, they knock some of the fruit to the ground, and apes consume the contaminated fruit. Deforestation increases the chances of transmission between animals as when forest size decreases, there is a larger chance that infected animals come into contact with other animals.

A major focus over the past year has been on developing an Ebola vaccine for humans. According to Peter Walsh, a primate ecologist at the University of Cambridge, many of the vaccines that do not work for humans could possibly work for apes. Several Ebola vaccines already seem to work well with animals in the lab.

One vaccine uses a Chimpanzee adenovirus, or a common-cold virus, paired with a spliced gene sequence that codes for Ebola virus proteins. Usually when a virus enters a body, it inserts its genetic code into a cell and essentially turning the cell into its own virus “factory.” The infected cell will then usually present viral proteins on its surface. Following the same process, the adenovirus infects cells in a vaccinated animal, causing the cells to present Ebola virus proteins and priming the body’s immune system to recognize the proteins in the event of future Ebola infections.

Gorillas and chimpanzees in West Africa in Ebola-infected areas need the Ebola vaccine, but there are hurdles to applying the new research to apes. The vaccines currently require multiple immunizations, a logistical nightmare that would require researchers to chase down the same ape multiple times in dense forests. Additionally, existing laws in many countries ban medical research on apes because of their cognitive similarities to humans. The law was made with animal rights in mind, but it also prevents researchers from testing the promising Ebola vaccine on some of the animals that need it the most.

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