How to keep viruses in the wild from finding humans

Updated 6:04 PM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014

Story highlights

Steve Osofsky: Ebola outbreak reminds us that most pathogens find us through wildlife

He says: Killing, eating, trading animals; mixing species; encroaching on wild areas risky

He says we must make alternative food available where people rely on wild food sources

Osofsky: Many diseases arise from our demanding more and more from wild nature

Editor’s Note: Steve Osofsky is executive director for wildlife health and health policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

(CNN) —  

Much has been written about the many failures the ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa represents: from the genuine lack of access to basic health care in many developing countries to the fact that the front line first response has largely fallen upon the brave volunteers of the nongovernmental sector.

This week we have learned that a Spanish dog potentially exposed to Ebola was euthanized out of an abundance of caution, another reminder of how the fates of people and animals are often intertwined. But the animals that need to be much more front and center as we think about Ebola are not domestic dogs, but wildlife.

Steve Osofsky
Courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society
Steve Osofsky

As the human toll and financial costs continue to mount, it is worth taking a moment to consider that the majority of emerging and resurging viral pathogens like Ebola find us through wildlife – or, more accurately, we find them. How can we most effectively intervene to prevent these tragic disease outbreaks?

We likely will continue to invest millions in virus hunting, in cataloging the vast array of pathogens that lurk in wildlife around the world. That is intriguing and challenging work, and such efforts will likely continue to reveal a subset of pathogens we should worry about.

It’s important to note, however, that while there are likely hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of viruses we don’t even know about on land and sea, there are literally only a handful of human behaviors likely to bring humanity into contact with the potentially contagious ones carried by wildlife.

How do we encounter viruses carried by wild animals? We kill wildlife and eat or trade their body parts, we capture and trade live wildlife and mix species together in markets, and we encroach upon wilderness areas at increasingly dramatic scales. That’s about it. Three pretty straightforward things we can focus on. Of course our potential intervention points require more fine-grained information.

We next need to know who needs to eat wildlife. Food security is a basic human right. Many people around the world simply need to hunt to feed themselves and their families. For those people, we then need to identify species that should be avoided if at all possible.

If alternative, safe sources of nutrition can be made practically and reliably available, people should simply stop eating bats and primates. This is not the voice of conservation speaking here; it’s the voice of public health and common sense.

Knowing that bats are uniquely positioned in the animal kingdom as veritable virus factories, we need to know where people rely on access to bats as a food source. There are such places in the world, but there are likely as many if not more locales where bats are a preferred food, but not an essential one.

It’s important to note that the current Ebola outbreak appears to have originated when a 2-year-old child either touched a captured bat or consumed meat from one.

Bats seem to be a unique source of zoonotic viruses (viruses transmissible from animals to people) – from SARS and Ebola to Nipah and rabies – just to name a few. Because of this we should work to discourage the capture, killing and consumption of bats, the disruption of their roosting trees, and the establishment of farms right where they defecate and urinate.