A team of ERM employees, working through the ERM Foundation, have contributed to ‘breakthrough’ research that advances the scientific understanding of the interrelationship between deforestation and the animal-to-human transmission of the Ebola virus.
These findings have been published in the prestigious Nature Scientific Reports and could potentially be used to identify high risk locations and mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.
The 'world’s worst' outbreak
Late in 2014, the world’s worst ever outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) was taking hold in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Early in the crisis we were contacted by the Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA) - a small Sierra Leonean NGO - in relation to anecdotal reports that deforestation in West and Central Africa might increase the risk of EVD. EFA asked if we could help them to test this science and establish an evidence base to substantiate these reports.
EVD is a zoonotic disease, which means it is transferrable from animals to humans. It only requires one human to be infected by one animal for rapid human-to-human transmission of the virus to occur.
Our hypothesis was that fragmented forest landscapes may expand the interface between animals and humans and create unusual assemblages of species within forest patches. This may create more ‘opportunities’ for the virus to pass from animal to human.
What we found
Working in partnership with EFA, an ERM team including remote sensing and biodiversity experts analysed historical satellite imagery at the ‘index case’ (patient zero) locations of the 2014 outbreak, plus six earlier outbreaks.
The results were potentially significant, suggesting that EVD emerges where and when specific forest fragmentation parameters are within a narrow range, which could possibly help identify the conditions in which animal-to-human transmission of the virus is most likely to occur.
Finding a practical application for our research
In August 2015, the ERM Foundation and EFA published an initial report - Ebola virus disease and forest fragmentation in Africa, which gained the attention of a number of interested organizations including the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). A subsequent collaboration with CIFOR and the University of Malaga led to a new paper - Recent loss of closed forests is associated with Ebola virus disease outbreaks, which was published in Nature in October 2017.
With the findings now published in Nature, we are investigating a practical application for the research, including finding ways to ensure that forest and biodiversity health are more comprehensively factored into development planning.