Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Marburg Virus and Fruit Bats


Just over a year ago, on July 11th 2008, there was a report on the important ListServ Promed Ahead and some other news outlets that told the terrifying story of a Dutch tourist who had died in Holland after being in contact with fruit bats in Uganda. She had visited the Maragambo Forest in Queen Elizabeth National Park, like thousands of others before her. These thousands included me, my wife and at least fifty of my students. We had gone there because there is a cave there that is home to thousands,
if not tens of thousands of Egyptian Fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) and it is mesmerizing to watch them flit in and out of the roost, never mind to see them clinging to the rock in their serried ranks.

There was an added bonus of attraction at the cave. A pair of African Fish Eagles had taken up residence just outside the entrance – grub to go as it were. Furthermore there was a resident python. In fact the last group of students had seen two pythons. So it is probable that a little biology 101 had been taking place. No exercise need for their packed lunches!

As you can imagine, the park authorities have closed the cave to tourists. The last thing they need is another catastrophe.

The Dutch doctors who cared for the dying patient and identified the cause of her death could not be absolutely certain where the virus came from, but the evidence has now mounted and seems conclusive.

The first suggestion of the link between fruit bats and Marburg, which is closely related to the better known Ebola virus, seems to have been made in 2007, as this BBC report shows.

Then came the recent (Aug 2nd 2009) report in ScienceDaily titled
'Ebola Cousin' Marburg Virus Isolated From African Fruit Bats. To quote:- “A paper published in the open-access science journal PLoS Pathogens provides new insight into the identity of the natural host of this deadly disease.”

As the authors of the PLoS article state, this brings the identification of the natural host of Ebola one step closer, as fruit bats are also strongly suspected in this disease. The first indication of this may have been in a 2005 paper in the prestigious journal Nature that can be found here.

There is one more important part of this chain. Fruit bats are a major source of bushmeat in the forests of central Africa. They are also pretty easy to catch when they return to their roosts during the day.
How many human forest dwellers have died of one of these deadly diseases and not even been noticed?

1 comment:

AfriBats said...

Would you add your bat photo as a citizen-science observation to the AfriBats project on iNaturalist?:

AfriBats will use your observations to better understand bat distributions and help protect bats in Africa.

Please locate your picture on the map as precisely as possible to maximise the scientific value of your records.

Many thanks!