Study: chances for outbreaks of another African viral infection rising

Nov. 21, 2014

A strain of potentially deadly virus may have already jumped from fruit bats into humans in Africa, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature Communications. The study provides preliminary evidence that “spillover” of henipaviruses into human populations is underway.

“Our study found the first evidence—written in the immune cells of people living in our African study area—that humans have been exposed to henipaviruses, and also that the risk of infection goes up with exposure to a bat’s bodily fluids,” says Benhur Lee, MD, lead author of the study. “The tragedy of Ebola, which also jumped into humans from bats in Africa, argues that we must heighten our surveillance of viruses on the verge of spillover from animals into humans. HIV, SARS and West Nile virus were also unknown until they emerged.”

To measure the potential for henipavirus spillover among humans in Africa, the researchers examined sets of bat and human blood serum samples for evidence of past exposure. The study results, while preliminary, provide scientific evidence that henipavirus are making the bat-to-human jump as humans take over bat territory in the African nation of Cameroon. This appears to be especially true among people who regularly butcher bats as game or bush meat.

The study results support the theory that henipavirus infections are more common than once thought, Dr. Lee says, but either hidden as undiagnosed brain infections (encephalitis) in remote villages or mistakenly diagnosed as malaria, yellow fever, or typhoid, which cause similar symptoms. “Active surveillance is critical to developing strategies that help prevent a widespread outbreak,” says study co-author Brad Schneider, PhD, Director of Laboratory Sciences at Metabiota, the company that designed the surveillance system used to identify the spillovers in the current study. Read the article preview.

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