How is the Ebola virus distributed in the wild in Africa?

Developed a map with the distribution of Ebola virus in Africa, as the basis for analysing the factors of disease transmission.

In order to fight against the Ebola-virus disease, an essential challenge is the development of early warning systems that enable us to predict the occurrence of new outbreaks. The first step in this aim is to determine the geographic context where human populations are at risk of being infected, and which factors facilitate virus transmission to humans from natural reservoirs.

In spite of the huge dimension of the damages caused by the Ebola virus, much is still unknown about its biology. Meanwhile, bats are assumed to be the principal reservoir, and some researchers propose complex virus transmission systems in which different animal species could be involved. In fact, together with fruit bats, many primate species (including gorillas and chimpanzees), forest antelopes, rodents and other mammals have been found evidences of contact with the virus.

The journal Mammal Review has just published a new map with the distribution of the Ebola virus in Africa. This map is based on the analysis of environmental conditions that favour the virus presence in the wild. Such conditions are defined by vegetation, climate, and the types of distribution shown by mammal species that could be involved in the natural cycle of the Ebola virus. This includes species in which the virus could be kept latent, and also species potentially involved in the virus transmission.

This study is the output of a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and was carried out by a multidisciplinary team led by researchers from the University of Malaga, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Metropolitan University of Manchester. The initiative arose from the close collaboration between Professor John E. Fa and the group of Biogeography, Diversity and Conservation (Animal Biology Department) of the University of Malaga, whose director is Professor J. Mario Vargas.

The new map indicates that the distribution of the Ebola virus could be wider than suspected up to now. Favourable conditions for this virus were found in 17 countries of central and West Africa, all of them having extensive rainforest areas. According to Professor Fa, researching the Ebola virus distribution with a focus that goes further than bats will let us deepen in the knowledge of transmission mechanisms from animals to humans. A large proportion of infections resulted from handling bushmeat, which is the most important source of livelihood for many indigenous communities of the region.

Jesús Olivero, coordinator of the analyses performed at the University of Malaga, outlines the methodological innovation that has been carried out in this research. By considering the analysis of animal distribution types and spatial distribution modelling together, it is possible to get largely applicable results for the study of diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans. These methods will be of high utility for projects on zoonotic diseases, for which the Animal Biology Department is currently seeking funds.


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