Chopping Down African Forests Increases Human Exposure to Ebola

Habitat loss brings humans and animals into closer contact, increases the spread of disease

07_09_2014_ebola bushmeat.jpg
Dried bushmeat is displayed near a road of the Yamoussoukro highway. Experts who have studied the Ebola virus from its discovery in 1976 in Democratic Republic of Congo, then Zaire, say its suspected origin is forest bats. Links have also been made to the carcasses of freshly slaughtered animals consumed as bushmeat. THIERRY GOUEGNON/Reuters/Corbis

Since 1976, Ebola has killed at least 2,108 people518 in just the past few months, in the “biggest and most deadly Ebola outbreak the world has seen.”

Outbreaks of Ebola follow a familiar pattern, says Terrence McCoy for the Washington Post: they often start in remote villages on the forest's edge, before spreading with migrating people. Yet changing work patterns and ongoing environmental degradation—mostly deforestation—is threatening to make Ebola outbreaks even worse, say Climate Desk reporters James West and Tim McDonnell.

Ebola is a zoonotic disease, which means it can be passed between animals and people. As people cut down the forest or push further into the forest for mining and other work, it brings humans and animals into closer contact, say West and McDonnell. More overlap means more chances for viruses to jump from host to host and increased potential for an outbreak to spark.

For Ebola specifically, epidemiologists told West and McDonnell, the problem is bats, which come to live alongside people as their habitat is chopped down for firewood or agriculture. The Washington Post:

Driven out of their natural forested habitats, they’re swooping into populated regions, and some locals are now even hunting them. “Once extensive forests in which bats lived, separately from humans, have undergone progressive deforestation under the influence of population growth, land use, and climate change,” wrote Melissa Leach, the director of the Institute of Development Studies. “As bat habitats have fragmented and as people have moved into once-pristine forest areas, so human-bat contact has increased, making viral spillover more likely.”

Environmental degradation is actually a health problem for more than just Ebola—any disease that depends on people and wild animals being in close contact is affected by deforestation and habitat loss.

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