Bonobo Outbreak: Update from Democratic Republic of Congo

By Carl Zimmer | April 3, 2009 12:57 pm

bonobos440.jpgYesterday I passed on some grim news about a virus sweeping through bonobos. Some readers had questions, such as whether there was a quarantine and exactly what sort of virus is on the attack. Vanessa Woods kindly sent this email just now from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The most important thing at the moment for us is to protect the bonobos for the release project. these bonobos are in complete quarantine, and only select members of staff go in and out. so again NO RELEASED BONOBOS HAVE GOT THE FLU. they are in an entire separate part of the sanctuary with no contact with sick bonobos and they rarely see people. Claudine has had them in quarantine for 6 months with these procedures in place, not just for the flu, but for other dieases as well. there have been 5 health checks and ALL the bonobos in the sanctuary have been vaccinated for all diseases recommended by IUCN. obviously they need a flu vaccine and we are working on it.

for the rest, we only have two enclosures and a night building. at the first sign of a cough or a runny nose, we keep the bonobo isolated in the night building. both to keep an eye on the bonobo, and to protect the other bonobos. the problem is, the virus is just too fast. unlike a zoo, or a biomedical laboratory, the bonobos are free to range around a huge forest in the day time. they disappear at about 8 in the morning, and show up at 11 and 4pm to eat, then at 7pm to sleep.

the only time we can really separate them is first thing in the morning then when they come into sleep. and the virus is just too fast. a bonobo who is fine in the morning can be almost falling over by the afternoon. if we lock the bonobos inside all day, then it makes contamination that much faster. everyone disinfects their hands all the time, they change clothes and shower both in the morning when they arrive and before they leave in the afternoon. apart from this, with the short fall in the budget this year, there’s no money and no time to organise more equipment or another emergency enclosure. we’re all just fighting it as best we can with what we’ve got.

We’ve had some people freak out that this is a virus called H5N1 which is fatal to humans, but it’s not. it”s not ebola or bird flu or any other disease lethal to humans. and we know that b/c the keepers have been getting sick from the bonobos, they get the flu and they are over it in 24 hours. It happens once every couple of years that a flu goign round kinshasa in jan/ feb hits the bonobos in march. bonobos, we think, have a much lower immune system than people, which is why the kinsahsa virus that lasted for 24 hours in humans, is so much more severe than bonobos. we think it is human respiratory syncytial virus , again non fatal to humans, but we’re not sure.  

I’ll relay more updates from Vanessa as they come.

Image courtesy of Vanessa Woods.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: General

Comments (8)

  1. Thank you for this update. This has been helpful. I will be sure to post it to my social network pages.

    I thought though that H5N1 is contagious for 24 to 48 hours prior to the symptoms showing up. Not that this is H5N1, but it is helpful to know this for future reference.

    Someone once told me to watch our pets and look to nature for clues as to what may befall us. I do keep an eye on the animal world. The story about the Bonobos was compelling.

    Thanks again

    All the best,
    Catherine

  2. Is it because they’re such a small population with reduced genetic diversity that they have so little resistance?

  3. I’m not an expert, but it has been argued that humans have been selected for resistance to many different pathogens, which would have the result of strengthening the immune system. This have come about through contact with our many different domesticated animals. Bonobos probably haven’t been subject to such a diverse range of diseases. Additionally, a large population size makes evolving resistance more likely, since more mutations are tried the more offspring is had (in absolute numbers).

  4. Mahlatse Gallens

    HI I was wondering if you coudl put me in touch with Vannessa Woods.

    I am a journalist with South African broadcasting Co-ooporation based in Kinshasa. Would love to do a feature on the sanctuary….

    My details are hlatseentle@yahoo.com

  5. luca

    I guess this kind of thing will just become more common, as human populations encroach on natural habitat which are the last reserve for the other african apes. Differently from us, hey haven’t been tempered by thousands of years of animal husbandry, and derived zoonotic diseases. Did you pass on this post to Zara at Aetiology? She might have some good to say about it.

  6. I’d love to know more about the virus.

    I’d wonder about the SARS virus in particular. One strain of it was quite dangerous to humans, but it is not now considered a major threat.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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