How Palm Oil, Fruit Bats and Deforestation Could Be Linked to Ebola Epidemic
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.
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
By Grayson Jaggers
The connection between the pandemic and our dietary habits is undeniable. The stress of isolation coupled with a struggling economy has caused many of us to seek comfort with our old friends: Big Mac, Tom Collins, Ben and Jerry. But overindulging in this kind of food and drink might not just be affecting your waistline, but could potentially put you at greater risk of illness by hindering your immune system.
- 15 Indigenous Crops to Boost Your Immune System and Celebrate ... ›
- 15 Supplements to Boost Your Immune System Right Now - EcoWatch ›
- Should I Exercise During the Coronavirus Pandemic? Experts ... ›
- The Immune System's Fight Against the Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
As the world continues to navigate the line between reopening and maintaining safety protocols to slow the spread of the coronavirus, rapid and accurate diagnostic screening remains critical to control the outbreak. New mobile-phone-based, self-administered COVID-19 tests being developed independently around the world could be a key breakthrough in making testing more widely available, especially in developing nations.
- FDA Approves First In-Home Test for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- When Should You Get a COVID-19 or Antibody Test? - EcoWatch ›
- Trump Plans to End Federal Funding for COVID-19 Testing Sites ... ›
- Trump Insider Embeds Climate Denial Into Agency Reports ... ›
- Climate Denier Is Named to Leadership Role at NOAA - EcoWatch ›
New Jersey is one step closer to passing what environmental advocates say is the strongest anti-plastic legislation in the nation.
Did you know that nearly 30% of adults do, or will, suffer from a sleep condition at some point in their life? Anyone who has experienced disruptions in their sleep is familiar with the havoc that it can wreak on your body and mind. Lack of sleep, for one, can lead to anxiety and lethargy in the short-term. In the long-term, sleep deprivation can lead to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Fortunately, there are proven natural supplements that can reduce insomnia and improve quality sleep for the better. CBD oil, in particular, has been scientifically proven to promote relaxing and fulfilling sleep. Best of all, CBD is non-addictive, widely available, and affordable for just about everyone to enjoy. For these very reasons, we have put together a comprehensive guide on the best CBD oil for sleep. Our goal is to provide objective, transparent information about CBD products so you are an informed buyer.