Quantcast

How Palm Oil, Fruit Bats and Deforestation Could Be Linked to Ebola Epidemic

Climate

There is no question that the tragic and deadly spread of Ebola in West Africa is tied to the longstanding poverty in the region, and exacerbated by a woefully inadequate medical response by the international health community.

Less obvious are the links between the rampant deforestation in the region, rapid agricultural development and the killer outbreak.

A report released by the World Health Organization this month helps validate the hypothesis that deforestation helped spread the virus.

And while it would be imprudent and irresponsible to place the blame for the Ebola pandemic in any particular plantation in West Africa, there is a very interesting line of scientific inquiry underway that is finding that in general such plantations—including of palm oil—could play a significant role.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of United Nations and other institutions recently hypothesized that severe changes in the forest ecosystems disrupted an equilibrium that has been keeping the virus at bay in the wild.

In their commentary Did Ebola emerge in West Africa by a policy-driven phase change in agroecology? the authors review peer-reviewed studies showing that Ebola has been circulating in the region for years—and that this was not a “spontaneous outbreak,” as often reported. Rather, the authors suggest a new hypothesis: that the destruction of virgin forests and planting of vast monocultures forced the virus to “spill over” from its wildlife sources into human hosts.

Though bushmeat consumption is commonly thought of as the point of transfer of the virus from animals to humans and could indeed be to blame for some Ebola outbreaks, the authors point out that other likely sources are living animals driven out of the forest by expanding agricultural production.

Palm oil plantations, for instance, make a great home for fruit bats or Pteropodidae. As the authors note, “Bats migrate to oil palm for food and shelter from the heat while the plantations’ wide trails permit easy movement between roosting and foraging sites.”

Several species of these fruit bats are documented “reservoirs” for Ebola, which could then be transmitted to plantation workers and locals in nearby villages.

The authors make the case that intact native ecosystems usually contain pathogens like Ebola, but that clear cutting vast areas of forest can make the pathogen spread out of control. They argue, “clear-cutting Forested Guinea may have lowered the ecosystemic ‘temperature’ below which Ebola can be ‘sterilized’ and controlled.”

What's more, a report released by the World Health Organization this month helps validate the hypothesis that deforestation helped spread the virus. "Some evidence suggests that the resulting forest loss, estimated at more than 80%, brought potentially infected wild animals, and the bat species thought to be the virus’ natural reservoir, intocloser contact with human settlements," writes the WHO.

The first known infected victim—and 18-month old boy—had been seen playing in his backyard near a hollow tree infested with bats. Within three weeks, the boy and several of his family members had died of the infection.

This wouldn’t be the first time fruit bats could be linked to the spread of a virus. The Nipah virus in Bangladesh was spread by fruit bats urinating on the palm tree fruits that workers were cultivating.

A look at the land around the West African outbreaks fits well with this hypothesis. The first documented cases of infection in the current pandemic occurred in a small forest village just north of Guéckédou, in Southern Guinea near the borders of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Calling the area “ground zero” of the outbreak, researchers describe a “mosaic of local villages surrounded by dense vegetation interspersed with [oil palm] plantations.”

It’s also an ideal environment for fruit bats. And though oil-picking is a year round pursuit for local workers, the busiest time is the dry season—precisely when many Ebola outbreaks across Africa begin.

To be clear, this hypothesis was presented in a commentary section of an academic journal, so it is not a peer-reviewed piece of science. And another team more recently hypothesized the initial spillover took place when local children played with an insect-eating species of bat whose habitats are also being transformed by changes in regional agricultural production.

Whatever bat proves the source, the hypothesis that shifts in agricultural landscapes are promoting disease emergence should be taken seriously, especially as multinationals like Sime Darby and Olam continue to establish large-scale palm oil operations in Africa. The contention demands further research to inform land use planning decisions that minimize future risks of deadly diseases spreading out of control.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Inspired Youth Take On Their Future by Learning How to Tackle Climate Change

2014 Was the Hottest Year on Record

Pope Francis: Acting on Climate Change Is Essential to Faith

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

"Take the pledge today." Screenshot / StopFoodWasteDay.com

Did you know that more than a third of food is wasted or thrown away every year? And that only 25 percent of it would be enough to feed the 795 million undernourished people in the world? That's why today is Stop Food Waste Day, a chance to reflect on what you can do to waste less of the food you buy.

Stop Food Waste Day is an initiative of food service company Compass Group. It was launched first in the U.S, in 2017 and went global the year after, making today it's second worldwide celebration.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE

Berries are among the healthiest foods you can eat.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15 in Paris, France. Veronique de Viguerie / Getty Images

When Paris's Notre Dame caught fire on April 15, the flames threatened more than eight centuries of culture and history. The fire evoked shock, horror and grief worldwide. While the cathedral burned, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed determination to rebuild what the French regard as a sacred site.

Read More Show Less
An artist's impression of NASA's InSight lander on Mars. NASA / JPL-CALTECH

Scientists have likely detected a so-called marsquake — an earthquake on Mars — for the first time, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced on Tuesday.

Read More Show Less
Hero Images / Getty Images

Across the political aisle, a majority of American parents support teaching climate change in schools even though most teachers currently do not.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Priit Siimon / flickr / cc

By Andrea Germanos

Lawyer and visionary thinker Polly Higgins, who campaigned for ecocide to be internationally recognized as a crime on par with genocide and war crimes, died Sunday at the age of 50.

She had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer last month and given just weeks to live.

Read More Show Less
Pixabay

An E. coli outbreak linked to ground beef has spread to 10 states and infected at least 156 people, CNN reported Wednesday.

Read More Show Less
The Anopheles stephensi mosquito, which carries malaria. CDC / Jim Gathany

The world's first malaria vaccine was launched in Malawi on Tuesday, NPR reported. It's an important day in health history. Not only is it the first malaria vaccine, it's the first vaccine to target any human parasite.

Read More Show Less