One afternoon of the Great Ape Health workshop, August 21-23, was spent discussing methods to vaccinate apes against such deadly natural diseases as Ebola, or against diseases that humans might bring, such as ‘flu. Many captive gorillas, we were told, are given an annual ‘flu vaccine as a precautionary measure but this has not yet been done to wild gorillas.
There is an ethical debate about whether this is an unacceptable level of intervention in a natural ecosystem, but the majority of those present seemed to agree that if human activities are causing the problem, humans should attempt to solve it. And although Ebola might be natural, the repopulation of an area after an outbreak is more difficult since humans have fragmented the forest and in many places, bushmeat hunters will still kill any survivors.
Paradoxically though, Ebola seems to have a greater impact where gorillas are not hunted, because densities are higher and this enables the disease to spread more easily. But vaccination of gorilla populations at risk from the advancing Ebola wave is now a serious option thanks to Peter Walsh and colleagues in a project called Vaccinape (http://www.vaccinape.org/).
They are working on oral vaccines for unhabituated gorillas (if they can find a bait that wild gorillas want to eat) and vaccines to be delivered by darts or so-called biobullets (biodegradable material with the vaccine inside) for gorillas who can be approached. Not only might this save whole populations of gorillas, it will greatly reduce the risk of Ebola outbreaks in humans – many of which have been traced back to someone handling or butchering an infected ape they found in the forest.
As such, it would seem to me that the costs of Vaccinape should be shared by human health agencies, because as Richard Preston graphically described in The Hot Zone (http://www.richardpreston.net/books/hz.html) if one of these emerging diseases mutates to be better able to survive out of the host’s body, enabling it to spread by droplet infection, H1N1 would seem like a walk in the park in comparison…
The links between human and gorilla health is the focus of a relatively new NGO, Conservation Through Public Health (www.ctph.org), that recently won the Whitley Award (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tDRbZ80OAY). Founded by Uganda’s best know wildlife vet, Dr Gladys Kalema Zikusoka, it recognises that there is a three-way connection between human health, domestic livestock and wildlife. As people and their animals are increasingly living in close proximity to dwindling natural habitat, the health of the whole eco-system needs to be addressed.
A recent study of E. coli bacteria in gorilla dung, for example, found strains showing resistance to antibiotics (available without prescription in Uganda) that can only have come from the local human population. Gladys and her team work to improve treatment of people and livestock around gorilla habitat as well as the wildlife in that habitat, and introduce health measures to minimise the risks of cross-contamination.
After the workshop finished, Gladys and her husband Lawrence kindly hosted me for my last night in Kampala. Lawrence is a telecom specialist and is seeking to launch a new Gorilla Calling Card that would bring a sustainable source of revenue to expand this important work to other gorilla habitats. We could have talked all night, but I had to finish reviewing Desmond Morris’s new book ‘Planet Ape’ for BBC Wildlife, and we all had an early start the next day.