New strain of Ebola in Sierra Leone – what should be done now?

Alimamy Turay: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 31 July 2018:

The battle against the ebola virus should not only be staged as a responsive strategy, but should be looked at as a proactive or pre-emptive effort as well. That is, there should be two approaches running simultaneously in the war against this dreadful virus – the ‘Diagnostic’ approach and the ‘Proactive’ approach.

Ebola, the disease that is caused by the ebola virus, is no longer new to the world; especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC or the former Zaire) and West Africa.

This disease first surfaced its ugly head in the DRC in 1976. It has had several occurrences in this country, with devastating consequences to human life, coupled with negative impacts on economic opportunities.

The West African strain of this virus (EBOV), which is supposed to be the same as the DRC (or Zaire) strain, killed about 11,000 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, between 2014 and 2016.

This ebolavirus (EBOV), dealt a heavy and unprecedented blow to Sierra Leone society, with about 4,000 lives lost and a sudden negative thrust on the economy.

Indeed, the resulting turbulence in the economy created a lot of problems for former President, Ernest Bai Koroma, and the All Peoples Congress party (APC).

Just as the people of Sierra Leone are adjusting to the stigma and harsh realities of the ebola disease, after being declared ebola-free about two years ago, now there is another big ‘thump’ on society’s confidence and aspirations, as it was learnt that another species of the ebola virus known as the Bombali ebolavirus (BOMV), had been lurking around all the time.

“This new virus is genetically distinct from the virus that caused the outbreak in West Africa (EBOV) … as well as from all other known viruses” causing ebola virus disease outbreaks to date.

That’s frightening.

The discovery of the Bombali ebolavirus (BOMV) by PREDICT, a research project founded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has brought the number of known ebola virus species to six.

Other species include: Bundibugyo (BDBV), Reston (RESTV), Sudan (SUDV), Tai Forest (TAFV), and Zaire (EBOV).

PREDICT Ebola Host Project “was launched in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia to sample many animals that may be carriers of the ebolavirus … in different geographic areas and during the wet and dry seasons”.

And, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “the ebolavirus can spread to humans through contact with bodily fluids from infected people and animals. Animals that may carry ebolavirus include non-human primates, bats, and forest antelopes”.

However, although not certain, the epidemic in West Africa and the numerous outbreaks of the disease in the DRC, strongly implied that the ebola disease can be directly sourced from bats.

The findings of the new Bombali ebolavirus (BOMV) by PREDICT in Sierra Leone continue to point a finger at bats as the main carriers of this dreadful disease.

PREDICT has also established the fact that about 2% of insect-eating bats in the northern Bombali district region are infected by the strain of the ebola virus. Though “it is not known if Bombali virus has been transmitted to people or if it causes disease to people; however, results show it has the potential to infect human cells.

Because the new virus is genetically similar to the other ebolaviruses that do cause disease in humans, further investigation is needed to understand more about the specific risk it poses”.

Wait a minute …

Sierra Leone is full of different species of bats – mostly found in large ‘colonies’ in forests; but small groups can also inhabit cities, towns and villages. Does the newly found Bombali ebolavirus just the start of the discovery of more ebolaviruses in Sierra Leone?

Are Sierra Leoneans going to sit down and wait for another dent in their political, Social and economic image?

The ‘diagnostic’ response to fighting ebola disease is the only prevailing method at the moment. From past experience, this method has helped to develop surveillance tools, vaccines and drugs; to prepare for the detection and, then treatment of this horrible and scary disease – which does not only destroy lives but can stigmatize whole nations or regions.

The disadvantage of this approach is that, people are always waiting for something to happen before reacting to it.

Suppose PREDICT research activities are extended a bit further by incorporating a ‘proactive’ element in their programme.

This proactive approach will involve culling of all bats, non-human primates and forest antelopes that carry this virus. For instance, if one bat in a particular colony tested positive to the ebola virus, then the objective is to wipe out that colony.

Culling of animals for genetic, population and disease control is not new to the world. In the UK the “Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs targeted badgers for culling – the selective killing of a species as a population control measure. Badgers reportedly transmit bovine tuberculosis, a disease with a profound economic impact on farmers whose cows test positive”.

Why can’t the government of Sierra Leone take the battle of this ebola disease to the bats, instead of waiting for the bats to come at the people? Have Sierra Leoneans not learnt a lesson from the 2014-2016 ebola crisis?

The newly found Bombali ebolavirus (BOMV) could be a test case for the present Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) government, led by President Julius Maada Bio.

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