By Wollor E. Topor, Ph.D.
Yes! There are fascinating stories in medical research. Researching to find cures for deadly diseases like Ebola, HIV/AIDS, Marburg virus and hepatitis are remarkable and efforts, in these directions are not at all bad in and of themselves. It is good to remember this fact! Some of many health programs sponsored by the developed world are loving and sincere in their effort to serve mankind. However, for a leading United States institute like New York Blood Center to have funded the ‘Vilab II’ and left Liberia with infected apes whose future remains bleak on artificial islands, particularly at this time where Ebola virus is spinning out of control is a grave anxiety.
There are assumptions that the possible hosts of the Ebola virus include fruit bats, monkeys, and chimpanzees. These are the few hosts that are known this time. With the unprecedented manner in which the Ebola virus is active in the country, the Liberian government has started some ‘trial-and-error’ exercise to control this serious epidemic. Some of the options could generate a great deal of controversy and human rights implications. But for now, it is hoped that these strategies are cost-effective, socially desirable to yield the expected results. But one of the areas that need ‘calm’ attention is the redundant ‘Vilab II’ research facility operated by the New York Blood Center (USA) in Robertsville, 40 miles from Monrovia along the Farmington River. There are closed to 1,000 ''retired'' and highly infected chimpanzees/apes that were used as experimental animals in different studies of hepatitis viruses which are now living on six man-made islands. If the Ebola virus is associated with chimps why should Liberia continue to keep those contaminated apes?
It all started as the ‘Vilab II’ in 1974 by the United States base institute called New York Blood Center at the defunct Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research. Young chimps were captured and used for the breeding program. Consequently, chimps, due to their genetic makeup are believed to be our close relatives and exhibit the same biochemical changes with the hepatitis viruses, they do not contract the clinical disease that makes tests on humans so risky. This paper is not prepared to join the 21st-century debates about animals’ rights, but what is known is that due to growing pressure from animals’ rights activists, the ‘Vilab II’ was forced to abort its research experiments using animals in the mid-2000s. This left Liberia with new “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” along with many unresolved questions such as why Liberia? How safe are those chimps to co-exist with the surrendering communities? How many Liberians were treated for hepatitis, river blindness and schistosomiasis or snail fever? These were the main thrusts of ‘Vilab II’ and the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research, respectively?
The facts remain that the chimps’ population on these islands is rapidly increasing and remained fearful of contagion to be placed into zoos or used in breeding programs or release in the wild. On the other hand, it is expensive to keep an adult chimpanzee in captivity in a country where many people go to bed with empty bellies. Neither do the chimps have survival skills for the wild which they have not learned. It is possible that poachers could be hunting these infected apes for food. With the current health situation, why should these chimps still exist on these islands?
In addition, ‘Monkey Islands’ as they are being called by the locals, threatened the livelihoods of nearby communities. For instance, Norkon, Zangar and Wroto towns have abundant of ‘kiss meat’ (mollusk) but there is this high concentration of exceedingly contaminated chimps on these islands. In these rural villages, ‘kiss meat’ is a major income source and collection is chiefly done during the dry season. But during low tides, if there is a delay in the dole-out food for the chimps, the chimps get to low tide areas to gather crabs and ‘kiss meat’ as food. In the process, they compete with the people collecting ‘kiss meat.’ Because of fear and competition over “kiss meat,” the Norkon village has been deserted as the result of the chimps. The chimps’ population is increasing along with the rising fear of the local communities. According to Mr. Luke Boboqui, a resident of Wroto Town, ‘if chimps could swim, the people of Wroto Town will never live here like Norkon village.” Another resident, Mr. Amos Page indicated: “kiss meat and fishing is our only livelihood, but chimps trouble us.” On August 14, 2008 both Mr. Page and the Town Chief of Norkon were attacked by chimps while collecting ‘kiss meat.’ Chimps are said to be stronger than man and far more aggressive than a gorilla.
Could the disposal of the ‘Disneyland of infected apes’ in Liberia established by the New York Blood Center reduce or eliminate the current uncontrollable spread of Ebola virus? According to the prestigious Institute of Medicine, among the factors listed for emerging infectious diseases include “microbial adaptation and change,” meaning as researchers have changed the natural biophysical properties of these apes in the context of finding treatments for human diseases, they have alternated the microbes of these chimps, thereby creating new strains of virus. In other words, no scientist can say that these exercises are not often sensitive to variations that could lead to another pathogen.
A Growing Global Crisis (Ebola Virus)
The genuine participation of the international community, particularly the Western or developed countries is needed in this fight against the Ebola virus. The world is now a global village. In spite of the West’s well established health systems, affluent lifestyles, technological advanced 21st century, the Ebola virus could disregard these as long as vaccines and treatment for Ebola Virus are yet not developed. It is a global crisis because tourism, travel and transportation are now bringing people of the world into contact to each other. The case in point is the alleged infected “American citizen” holding a high Liberian government post at the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development traveled to Nigeria as headed of Liberian delegation to ECOWAS Conference and was reported dead. For now, we may never know who all were with this “American citizen” and have bordered planes, trains and ships and have entered Western countries.
The World Health Organization (WHO) predicted this epidemic before this sadistically outbreak of Ebola virus. Based on WHO findings it usually takes place “primarily in remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests.” Meanwhile, in 2012, Doctors without Borders also known in French as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) asserted in its post, “MSF Concludes Emergency Ebola Response in Uganda” in which it indicated that it had just completed its emergency response in Uganda 2002, where there was an outbreak that infected 425 persons of which just over half died. In a turning over ceremony, MSF coordinator Olimpia de la Rosa said “We can rely on the capability of Ministry of Health staff to take over and manage Ebola cases with all safety guarantees.” MSF also restored a treatment unit in Mulago hospital, located in Kampala, Uganda's capital. The point here is that MSF is a western institution capable of preparing the remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests” long before the outbreak. The world needy not waited for the outbreak before MSF go into Guinea to set up treatment centers.
The Way Forward
This Ebola virus outbreak throughout Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia is first-time outbreak of Ebola virus have sent shocking waves to these communities who are already experiencing broken-down health regimes along with severe food insecurity. Furthermore, these communities know relatively nothing about the disease or how it is transmitted. These socio- psychological deportments like that of the man who set the Conference Room of the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare on fire; the ELWA residents protesting erection of Ebola center and an “American citizen” getting on the plane denying the fact that he had a pervious direct contact with Ebola victim, requires screening testing or quarantine for prevention, the “brabee” myth that ‘wee’ can cured Ebola are manifestations that the people were caught unaware in dealing with this serious epidemic.
Fortunately, there are always warnings in any epidemic outburst. For instance, in early 2009 it was reported that “Liberia has declared a state of emergency over a plague of caterpillars that has destroyed plants and crops and contaminated water supplies, threatening an already fragile food situation.” On June 26, 2014 Joanna M. Foster posted “Millions of Crop-Devouring Caterpillars Invade West Africa … causing many people to abandon their houses until the flood of caterpillars recedes.”Let us remember that both occurrences started from northern Liberia, where the Ebola virus is asserted to have preyed on Liberia’s first victims. What actually did the government do to put a check to the armyworms problem is yet everyone’s quest. This is only to open our eyes to this Ebola virus that has become a big national and global concern.
Fellow Liberians, at this time, there is a need to bury our skepticism on Ebola virus whether it is dirty work or some conspiracy for “medical tyranny,” may never be known. Instead, we should rally behind the government’s ‘trial-and-error’ strategies. A broad societal response is highly necessary to effect prevention. Let's stop the denial, scapegoating and stigmatization that could waste valuable time and lead to more people being infected.
Let us recognize Dr. Samuel Mutooro, a Ugandan doctor, Dr. Samuel Brisbane, a Liberian doctor, the Liberian nurse Esther Kesselly and other medical professionals who may have lost their lives as the New Heroes for their role in the new page of national history.
Assistance from the West like the EU €3.9 million to West African to help combat the Ebola virus, although late, but is appreciated. Building out capacity for affected nations to begin taking responsibility themselves in dealing with outbreaks is much more sustainable. Western partners should guide affected communities in the process, not holding our hand each time a crisis develops. The latest outbreak of Ebola across Western Africa is a test on how truly suited the WHO and international medical relief agencies are protecting the global population.
Ebola virus is believed to be transmitted to human after coming in contact with dead and living chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, and forest antelope. Therefore, the way the government of Liberia handles ‘Disneyland of Infected Apes’ should show how committed it is in its flight against the Ebola virus.