Friends say that I am obsessed with the current outbreak of Ebola in west Africa. They are not wrong – but Ebola and I have a long history. Ebola, indirectly, is what brought me to Fiji.
As I was finishing up writing my PhD dissertation in California in 2006, I saw an announcement of a talk to be given by Dr. Peter Walsh discussing the catastrophic decline of great ape populations in the Congo Basin rainforests due to transmission of Ebola. The talk was tragic but yet transfixing. Peter spoke about the legacy of the French colonial policy to move all villages to the main roads in Gabon, which created vast forest tracks that opened up pathways for formerly isolated ape populations to contact each other right as Ebola broke out of its jungle reservoirs in the mid-1990s. Ebola has killed about one third of the world’s gorilla population.
I knew all too well about Ebola’s history in humans in Gabon. In early 1997, I received my assignment to go to Gabon as a rural fisheries extension agent with the U.S. Peace Corps. I had never previously heard of the country, but in my research and in talking to public health experts with the World Heath Organization, I learned that a highly fatal disease called Ebola had entered human populations to devastating effects in Gabon in 1994, 1996 and 1997.
I immediately went out and bought Richard Preston’s gripping read, The Hot Zone, to learn more and found out that a very similar strain of Ebola to Ebola Zaire that is presently plaguing Sierra Leone, Libera and Guinea actually found its ways to the outskirts of Washington DC in 1989 in infected monkeys. Between the two days it took me to read the account, I had terrible nightmares of visiting my father (a surgeon) at the hospital while patients crashed out all around us.
While working in Gabon, thoughts of Ebola were never too far away. Thus, when I saw the announcement about Peter’s talk, I was keen to learn more. I was intrigued to find out that Peter had worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society while conducting his research in Congo Basin. After the talk, I approached Peter and said that I was interested in working for an environmental NGO and would he be able to tell me a bit more about the different options. Peter was kind enough to call me when he got back to his home base at the time at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and gave me an overview of the different NGO players.
From that moment, hearing about WCS’s boot-on-the ground approach, focus on science and commitment to working with local communities, I was sold. I originally applied to run the WCS Papua New Guinea marine program in 2006, though ended up taking a research position in Australia when many months had gone by without a response. I tried again when I saw a position advertised for Fiji and was hired as an Associate Conservation Scientist with the program in 2008.
To this day, I am still grateful to Peter for taking the time to provide guidance to an eager graduate student, and grateful to WCS for taking a chance to hire me to come to Fiji. It has been an amazing six and a half years in Fiji to date, and I look for to the many interesting adventures and challenges to come.
As for Ebola, I am heartened by the latest WHO announcement of declines in new human cases in Liberia, though fearful for the still rapid spread across Sierra Leone and Guinea. I am also concerned about response to media reports that fruit bats harbor the virus. While this is true, slaughtering bats is not going to stop future outbreaks of the disease. We need to look at both preserving their habitat and limiting human-bat encounters through hunting.
WCS is currently leading efforts to be able to track Ebola in the wild. WCS researchers are catching and sampling fruit bat populations to track the presence of Ebola virus over a period of time, but handling infected fruit bats can be dangerous, so they looked to develop a less risky but equally accurate method. Analysis of feces from great apes tested for antibodies for Ebola is allowing WCS and colleagues to determine the presence of the disease within local populations over large geographic areas. By learning more about the disease, the better we can prepare for it.