LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Scientists looking for Ebola in bats have identified 16 other viruses in the animal which could jump to humans and potentially cause a disease outbreak on a similar scale to the West African crisis, a health security expert said on Friday.
Humans can contract Ebola from bats, which are carriers of the virus, as well as from other animals.
Professor Nigel Lightfoot said the additional viruses had been identified by scientists from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa.
“They tell me they have got 16 other (viruses)…which are just waiting to spread to humans and cause the next (epidemic),” he told a conference in London on tackling serious infectious diseases.
“So you shouldn’t be saying if there is a next one. The message is when is the next emerging public health threat that is going to follow Ebola.”
More than 8,600 people have died in the epidemic that began in Guinea a year ago and has led to more than 21,700 cases reported across nine countries.
Lightfoot said the World Bank would shortly announce hundreds of millions of dollars in investment in infrastructure in the three countries worst affected by Ebola — Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The crisis has hit Liberia and Sierra Leone particularly hard because recent civil wars have left their health services in tatters, the conference hosted by think tank Royal United Services Institute heard. The conflicts also fuelled a brain drain as doctors left to work in the West.
Lightfoot, who is executive director of Connecting Organisations for Regional Disease Surveillance (CORDS), an international NGO which aims to flag up potential risks, said early communication was key to preventing outbreaks turning into epidemics.
As a result of the Ebola crisis, CORDS is setting up a specialised West African network which is partly funded by the World Bank.
Lightfoot said it was vital for disease prevention specialists to work with people on the ground to build fast, smart surveillance systems.
He said it was also important not to forget traditional healers who can play a key role in stopping Ebola and other diseases. In some places 60-70 per cent of people visit healers.
In Democratic Republic of Congo, which has seen several Ebola outbreaks, health experts are teaching traditional healers how to spot patients with certain symptoms and direct them to the health system.
In addition to bats, humans can also contract Ebola from other animals such as monkeys which have come into contact with infected bats. The danger lies in exposure to infected blood in the killing and preparation of the animals.
But Lightfoot said it was pointless to tell people to stop eating monkeys which are a valuable source of protein and have been eaten for thousands of years.
“Talking to the prime minister of Guinea, he said, ‘Don’t tell my people not to eat monkeys because it doesn’t work. I know, he said, I tried to say you shouldn’t eat bush meat, bats and monkeys. It doesn’t work and people will continue to eat it’.”
Lightfoot said the answer was to minimize the risks by teaching people how to butcher animals safely and cook the meat well “so it’s monkey stew, not monkey tartare.”
He told Thomson Reuters Foundation there was no indication as to how serious the 16 newly identified viruses were.
(Reporting by Emma Batha, Editing by Maria Caspani)
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