Deadly Viruses From Rainforests
According to Bloomfield, McIntosh, and Lambin’s 2019 article in Landscape Ecology, “Deforestation and landscape fragmentation have been identified as processes enabling direct transmission of zoonotic infections.”
Most people don’t know that on the scale of disease risk and threat, SARS-CoV-2 is much milder than other diseases that could emerge from global rainforests at any time. Here are just a few of the deadly viruses which have emerged from rainforests since 2015:
Nipah Virus: Indonesia, 40-50% fatality rate
In 1997, Indonesians burned an area of their rainforest about the size of Pennsylvania to clear farmland. Bats flew out of the burning forest, settling in nearby orchards and farms. Pigs on the farms soon fell ill, and then pig farmers. By 1999, 265 farmers or family members had developed a severe brain inflammation and over 40% of them died: the deadly Nipah virus had leapt from fleeing fruit bats to pigs, and their owners and families.
Lassa Virus – 1% death rate but 300,000 cases a year
First discovered in 1969, Lassa fever is endemic in West Africa, where it emerged, killing two missionary nurses. The disease currently infects about 300,000 people a year and kills approximately 5,000 people in West Africa. Lassa virus is spread by contact with feces and urine of rats (Nastomys natalensis) which are common in homes throughout Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, southern Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
Ebola and Ebolaviruses – 60 to 90% death rate
Many people are unaware that Ebola (EVD), which was first discovered in 1976 near the Ebola River in Democratic Republic of Congo, has related viruses, including Sudan virus, Tai Forest virus, Bundibugyo virus, Reston virus, and Bombali virus. Ebola and its related viruses can have a fatality rate of up to 60% or even 90% in the most severe cases.
EVD (Ebola) outbreaks occur annually. So far in 2021, two outbreaks in Africa have occurred in Guinea and Congo. The most severe outbreak took place between 2014 and 2016, ultimately infecting over 28,600 people and causing the deaths of 11,325 people, including over a dozen U.S. citizens, primarily medical workers.
Dangerous Diseases From Wild Animals – Aka: “Zoonotic” Diseases
The viruses that Rainforest Defense Foundation seeks to prevent are known as “zoonotic” diseases, which means they spread from animal populations to humans. A disease that may be endemic to tropical rainforest animals, like fruit bats, may not harm them very much. But once the virus enters an unfamiliar host such as a person: this is the source of deadly viral disease.
Other zoonotic diseases include:
• Lyme disease
• Dengue fever
• Salmonella and E.coli
• Avian flu
The United Nations’ Environment Chief Inger Anderson said in November 2020,
“Nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic. Failing to take care of the planet means not taking care of ourselves.”
Deforestation, trade in wild animals, including wetmarkets and illegal animal poaching and exotic animal exportation/importation, and climate change all cause animals to leave their habitats, or humans to be exposed to them. These practices all increase the risk of deadly zoonotic diseases, including viruses for which there is no vaccine and no approved treatment.
Viruses are only one type of disease threat as well. Fungal infections and bacteria can also emerge from the rainforest. Mosquitos can carry blood-borne disease, along with other insects. Researchers at INPA, the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, have uncovered over 250 disease threats in a single area of the Amazon rainforest. Climate change along with deforestation is increasing the threats from all of these different vectors.
The Seven Deadliest Rainforest Diseases
In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified seven types of global disease risk that could result in a major pandemic, and the majority are associated with rainforest deforestation and animal exploitation:
• Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF)
• Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus disease
• Lassa fever
• Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV)
• Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
• Nipah and henipaviral diseases Rift Valley fever (RVF)
The predictions were correct, and we now know the stunning cost of SARS-CoV-2 – the novel coronavirus. Official reports in the U.S. say that 500,000 people have lost their lives due to COVID-19, but the true total is likely much higher. Any reasonable person knowing these facts is right to ask, “Can we survive two or more such deadly viruses emerging at the same time?”
After COVID-19 and its cost of trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, protecting the rainforest and preventing the emergence of more deadly and difficult to control diseases has to be seen as essential to human survival as well as the survival of our planet and environment.