The illegal wildlife trade opens up countless opportunities to spread different diseases.
The Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone continues to spread despite country and international efforts to stop it in its tracks and make sure it never returns. As of October 1, 3,338 people have died and 7,178 are infected. More people have perished in this latest Ebola outbreak than in all previous outbreaks of the virus on the continent combined. In addition to the large number of people who have died, and the steady march of new infections, the three hardest-hit countries are also suffering heavy economic costs from trade and travel restrictions, food being in short supply, and other impacts. While health workers, international health agencies and charities work furiously to contain the outbreak, we must also think ahead so that we might avoid similar epidemics in the future. What might the first step be? Better understanding the animal origins of Ebola and other infectious diseases so that we can prevent an epidemic like this from ever happening again.
Ebola is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it is transmitted from animals to humans. In past outbreaks, this has occurred during the handling of wildlife – bats, gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys, even porcupines. The running hypothesis for this outbreak is that it came from bats, though an early focus of consideration was on primates trafficked through capital cities. Regardless of the precise path of transmission, it is clear that we must examine human relationships with wildlife to ensure we protect against this and other future disease risks.