A scary problem lurks beyond the frenzied efforts to keep people from spreading Ebola: No one knows exactly where the virus comes from or how to stop it from seeding new outbreaks.
Ebola has caused two dozen outbreaks in Africa since it first emerged in 1976. It is coming from somewhere – probably bats – but experts agree they need to pinpoint its origins in nature.
That has had to wait until they can tame the current outbreak, which has claimed more than 1,100 lives in four countries – the worst toll from Ebola in history.
“First and foremost get the outbreak under control. Once that piece is resolved, then go back and find what the source is,” said Jonathan Towner, a scientist who helped find the bat source of another Ebola-like disease called Marburg. Towner works for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Others say finding Ebola’s origins is more than a down-the-road scientific curiosity.
“Confirming the source would definitely be important,” said Dr. Richard Wenzel, a Virginia Commonwealth University scientist who formerly led the International Society for Infectious Diseases.
Throughout history, some of the biggest wins against infectious diseases have involved not just limiting person-to-person spread but also finding and controlling the sources in nature fueling new cases.
Plague was halted after the germ was tied to rat-riding fleas. With the respiratory disease SARS, civet cats played a role. With typhus it was lice, and with bird flu, live poultry markets. Efforts to control MERS, a virus causing sporadic outbreaks in the Middle East, include exploring the role of camels.
In the case of Ebola, health experts think the initial cases in each outbreak get it from eating or handling infected animals. They think the virus may come from certain bats, and in parts of Africa, bats are considered a delicacy.
But bats may not be the whole story or the creature that spread it to humans.
The World Health Organization lists chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines as possibly playing a role. Even pig farms may amplify infection because of fruit bats on the farms, the WHO says.
“It’s not clear what the animal is. It’s going to take a lot of testing,” said Dr. Robert Gaynes, an Emory University infectious disease specialist who worked for the CDC for more than 20 years.
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