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June 5, 2015

Which animal started the Ebola outbreak?

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Disease detective Lina Moses captures rats and other animals to track the origins of diseases such as the Ebola virus that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa earlier this year.

Currently, she is working on cracking the code of Lassa fever, a zoonotic disease similar to Ebola.

80 percent of Lassa fever cases are spread from rodents to humans, and interfering with that process is a crucial step in defeating the virus, Moses said.

But epidemiologists have never found a definitive animal host for Ebola. Scientists have located Ebola antibodies in several types of fruit bat, making it a chief suspect, but there has not been conclusive evidence.

Part of what makes Ebola difficult to trace is its rapid rate of mutation, according to computational genomicist Pardis Sabeti, who studies Ebola’s genetic characteristics. “We are dealing with a changing entity,” she said.

Ebola has appeared in West Africa before, but until the most recent outbreak it only appeared in “hot spots” in remote villages for one to two years. This time, Ebola entered cities for the first time and spread quickly among dense populations.

There were also insufficient prevention and control measures in place to prevent health workers from getting sick, Moses said. The U.S. government is funding an isolation ward and research facility to help prevent a similar disaster in the future.


Warm up questions
  1. What do you know about the Ebola crisis?
  2. How is Ebola spread?
  3. What are some diseases that animals and humans share?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Why is it important to understand where an outbreak of disease starts?
  2. Why was it so difficult to control the spread of Ebola in the region once the epidemic began in West Africa?
  3. What can studying the genetic information of a disease or type of disease tell us? How can we use that knowledge to prepare for future outbreaks?
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