Who Knew Feces Could Tell Us So Much?!
Ashley Hiltebeitel (12 Micro) finds Ebola virus fascinating, and noted in the comment thread to the previous post that she is working on a research paper for her Academic Writing class on the topic! It is unclear exactly how big the outbreak is, and epidemiologists are using many approaches to define the size of it. Ashley presents one approach for finding out how significant the outbreak is in non-human primates, from a news alert on Science Daily summarizing a primary research article in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. Here is Ashley’s summary:
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has led a research that uses fecal samples from wild great apes to center in on the populations that have been infected with the Ebola virus. This discovery will change the way the Ebola virus is studied. Because it is hard to capture and sample the wildlife in West Africa, it makes it hard to figure out how it emerges and is maintained in wildlife. Using the feces from the great apes gives scientists a cheaper, more simple and non-invasive technique to acquiring information about the disease. This new methodology also gives scientists the fact that apes develop antibodies against a disease to survive just as humans do. They also developed a way to isolate the antibodies from the ape’s feces. 10% of samples from 80 free-ranging wild gorillas from five different habitats tested positive in showing the Ebola virus in their feces.
The worst ever human epidemic of the Ebola virus is ongoing right now throughout West Africa in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and the Sierra Leone. The zaire species of the Ebola virus is the one responsible. This species has been the cause of major human outbreaks before as well as major declines in the chimpanzee and gorillas populations all over central Africa. The human outbreaks have followed the wildlife outbreaks in the past. They transfer to humans from eating infected wildlife. including apes and fruit bats. Therefore, this spillover from wildlife to humans could easily be avoided by not consuming dead wildlife or buying the bats that are sold as food in markets. Because there is no cure for this disease yet, barrier nursing, supportive care, contact tracing, isolation of those who become ill, and education of the public is the only way to try and stop the spread of the disease from human to human. This is much harder to do in less developed nations than the United States where the Ebola virus has emerged repeatedly.
Alain Ondzie, a WCS veterinarian, made a great point by saying, “If scientists can better understand patterns of Ebola virus infection in wildlife, the public health sector can be more prepared to prevent human outbreaks.” The presence of the virus in the ape’s feces shows that some apes survive the Ebola virus. It also shows the regions where the Ebola virus has emerged and which populations of apes are more prone to getting it. Further investigation will need to be done to to see if antibodies persist or whether they pose protection against future infection of the disease.
The benefits of collecting ape feces include being able to cover large areas of forest more quickly without the expense of capturing and handling the animals. It also opens interest to better understand the ecology of the disease and some management options. This could include the study of immune response that could be compared with the genetic information of individuals after an outbreak. Scientists could use this technique with other species that play roles in the transmission of the Ebola virus as well, including wild pigs and antelope.