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Are Jamaican bats a risk to humans....
or will humans be a risk to Jamaican bats?


Fact Sheet posted 28th October 2014
Last Updated: 10th November 2014

Disclaimer:   This Fact Sheet contains the professional opinion of Windsor Research Centre (WRC) and is based on the references listed at the bottom of the page. This document is not intended to be an authoritative statement or to be an authority about the origin and transmission of Ebola. The author (Dr. Susan Koenig - Wildlife Ecologist) and WRC are not liable for any errors or omissions in this document.

WRC encourages readers to consult medical authorities, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and World Health Organization (WHO) for advice on preventing Human-to-Human transmission of Ebola.

We take seriously all alien pathogens and parasites -- not only those which cause diseases in their native hosts, but also those which appear benign.   Island populations are often "immunologically naïve":   oceans are good barriers to the movement of terrestrial wildlife and the micro-organisms which travel with them, so when alien pathogens (such as viruses or bacteria) are introduced, (either intentionally or accidentally), islander immune systems can be overwhelmed until antibodies develop to fight the pathogen...or an individual dies. The arrival of Chikungunya virus (Chik-V) to Jamaica in 2014 highlights how susceptible island populations are when a new virus arrives.

One article which helped enormously in preparing this Fact Sheet was:
Olival, K.J. and D.T.S. Hayman. 2014. Filoviruses in Bats: Current Knowledge and Future Directions. Viruses. Apr 2014; 6(4): 1759–1788.
Published online Apr 17, 2014. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/v6041759

We also recommend Sonia Shah’s excellent article “The Spread of New Diseases: The Climate Connection”, which explains how microbial pathogens can jump ("spillover") from wildlife to people, particularly when humans invade a forest. The transmission of disease-causing organisms from wildlife to humans is called "zoonosis".

For a discussion about Ebola and dogs, visit the website of the Jamaica Veterinary Medical Association (JVMA).

Ebolavirus & Wildlife
  • The Family of viruses called Filoviridae contains only two recognized genera (singular=genus):   Ebolavirus and Marburgvirus.   Both of these genera cause disease in vertebrate animals, with primates being the main target.   Other animals can be infected but not develop disease.
    Llovius virus, detected in 2002 in the Iberrian Peninsula (France, Spain, and Portugal), is provisionally classified as a distinct genus, "Cuevavirus", and species "Lloviu cuevavirus".

  • There are 5 different virus species in the genus Ebolavirus (Family Filoviridae). Four of these species (Zaire ebolavirus, Sudan ebolavirus, Bundibugyo ebolavirus, and Taï Forest ebolavirus) occur in Africa:   the first three are known to be highly lethal if contracted by humans and non-human primates;   the fourth (Taï Forest ebolavirus) is lethal to chimpanzees but in humans is known from a single non-fatal case where a veterinarian was infected after performing a necropsy on a chimpanzee in 1994.
    The fifth species of Ebolavirus (Reston ebolavirus) occurs in Asia:   it does not cause disease in humans but it causes disease in domesticated pigs and can kill non-human primates (notably, macaques).
    It remains uncertain whether Zaire ebolavirus also occurs in Asia or whether there exists an intermediate form between Zaire and Reston ebolavirus.
  • African fruit bats (Family Pteropodidae) are thought to be a natural reservoir for the genus Ebolavirus. The viruses have evolved with the bats’ immune systems and do not appear to cause any significant health problems for the bats.
  • Outbreaks of Ebolavirus in non-human primates (esp. gorillas and chimpanzees) can correspond with heavy rains at the end of a period of prolonged dryness. Extremely dry conditions force trees to fruit later. When the rains arrive, the trees will then produce a mast (i.e., super-abundant) fruit supply and all types of animals, including fruit-eating bats and primates, congregate to feed. This intense clustering of different wildlife species provides an opportunity for pathogens and parasites, including Ebolavirus, to jump from one species (its co-evolved host) to a new species (an immunologically-naïve victim), potentially through direct animal-to-animal contact or with surface contamination of partially-eaten fruits. It remains unclear exactly how non-human primates and other terrestrial mammals become infected with Ebolavirus from bats.
  • Ebola viruses have wiped-out up to 80-90% of some ape populations in Africa. During an Ebola outbreak, gorilla mortality can be almost 50 times higher than normal adult mortality rates.
  • Ebolavirus it thought to spillover from wildlife to people when a human kills and eats an infectious animal or comes into contact with the animal’s blood or other body fluids while handling its corpse.
  • In addition to the handling of infected wildlife carcasses, poaching and trafficking of gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos may facilitate the spread of ebolaviruses as animals are moved by traffickers through intermediary countries.   For example, the CITES Trade Database shows that 10 gorillas were exported from Guinea to China in 2010.   However, Guinea has no indigenous gorillas, nor according to Africa Geographic Blog, does it have any gorilla breeding facilities.
  • Prior to 2007, during outbreaks of Ebola virus disease (formly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever) caused by Zaire ebolavirus, the index cases -- the first human infected in an outbreak -- were mainly hunters who had been infected handling the carcasses of animals (gorilla, chimpanzee, or duiker) which they had encountered in the forest.

    The 2007 Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo corresponded to increased bat activity associated with bat migration and hunting -- large-scale slaughter -- of fruit bats for bushmeat prior to the outbreak.

    The suspected index case for the current outbreak of Zaire ebolavirus in West Africa is a 2-year old child, who died in Meliandou, Guéckédou prefecture, southeastern Guinea, in December 2013. This location is more than 2,000 km away from all previous Ebola outbreaks.

    The 2014 Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which peaked in August, began on 26th July when a woman fell ill a few days after butchering a primate of an unknown arboreal species. The primate had been found dead by her husband. The variant strain of Zaire eboluvirus matches to previous Ebola outbreaks in DRC (notably the 1995 Kikwit outbreak) and is genetically distinct from the Zaire ebolavirus variant circulating in West Africa since December 2013 / early 2014:   the two outbreaks are not epidemiologically connected.

  • Logging roads, deforestation, and the encroachment of agriculture into natural forests afford humans easier access to hunt or poach wildlife, thereby increasing peoples' chances of encountering an infectious bat or non-human primate.
  • Even after the current Ebola outbreak in humans is contained, as long as people continue to handle animal carcasses they encounter in the forest or eat African fruit bats and non-human primates, there will be new Ebola outbreaks.
  • As of April 2014, only three species of African fruit bats have been identified as likely natural reservoirs of Zaire ebolavirus (i.e., replicating RNA was detected via polymerase chain reaction [PCR]). These three all belong to a single Family called “Pteropodidae”. A further 5 African fruit bat species (also in the Family Pteropodidae) and three bats in the genera Hipposideros (Old World Leaf-nosed Bats) and Tadarida (previously called Mops; Greater Mastiff Bats) have been detected in Africa in the wild with anti-Ebola immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies, but they have not been detected in a condition of actively shedding Ebolavirus (i.e., they were recovered and no longer infectious to other bats at the time they were tested;   they may be "incidental hosts" vs. a "true reservoir").

    Species of Rousette fruit bats (Roursettus spp.) in Bangladesh and China have been found to be seropositive (i.e., they had developed antibodies) for both Reston and Zaire ebolavirus, raising concern that there is perhaps a genetic intermediate between these two viral species or that Zaire ebolavirus is present not only in Africa but also in Asia. This second concern -- Zaire ebolavirus present in Asia -- is worrying because Old World fruit bats also are eaten in Asia.

  • African (Old World) Fruit Bats
    Order: Chiroptera
    Family: Pteropodidae
    1. Hypsignathus monstrosus
    2. Epomops franqueti
    3. Myonycteris torquata
  • At the time of posting this Fact Sheet, we found no reports of any virus species in the genus Ebolavirus being detected in any free-ranging wildlife (including bats) in the Western Hemisphere. The occurence of the genus Ebolavirus in free-ranging wildlife is currently known for only Africa and Asia (Philippines, China, Bangladesh and Indonesia). The entire virus Family Filoviridae thus far is known to occur only in the Old World.
  • The Jamaican Fruit Bat (Artibeus jamaicensis; [A]) and the Jamaican Fig-eating Bat (Ariteus flavescens; [B]) both belong to the Family Phyllostomidae:   this is a New World family whose species do not occur in Africa, Austral-Asia, or Europe.

    Artibeus jamaicensis ranges from the Lower Florida Keys, through the Greater and Lesser Antilles to Grenada (but not in Trinidad and Tobago). It also occurs from central Mexico to the northwest of South America, west of the Andes Mountains.

    Six subspecies are recognized.   Although taxonomists are wrangling over the assignment of species and subspecies designations for the mainland populations, it is recognized that the subspecies Artibeus jamaicensis jamaicensis is restricted to the Lesser and Greater Antilles, except for Cuba and the Bahamas which have a different subspecies Artibeus jamaicensis parvipes. Molecular analyses show that there isn't regular movement of individuals between the mainland and the islands.

    In Jamaica, this species normally roosts in caves, but it also will roost in trees and occassionally in buildings. Within caves, a single male will have a harem of a few females. During the night, it may rest temporarily in buildings, particularly when it is near a fruit tree:   this behaviour can lead to potential conflicts with humans.

    Ariteus flavescens is endemic to Jamaica:   it occurs nowhere else in the world.   It also is the only species in the genus Ariteus - it is our most genetically isolated and unique bat species. The species typically roosts in trees, including coconut trees in areas of agro-forestry; it will roost in caves opportunistically when ripe fruit is nearby. We've seen bats roosting individually and in small groups of about 10 individuals:   it's not what one would describe as a highly social and gregarious species (i.e., not good if you're a virus needing high densities of a host, to ensure good rates-of-contact for transmission).

  • Neotropical Fruit Bats
    Order: Chiroptera
    Family: Phyllostomidae
    A. Artibeus jamaicensis
    B. Ariteus flavescens
  • The United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Emerging Pandemic Threat Program and the associated PREDICT project (based at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis) screens bats, rodents, and primates across multiple (~10–20) viral families, including Filoviruses, in 20 countries around the world.   Screening in Latin America is conducted in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico.
  • The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) One Health and Zoonoses project, encompassing 15 countries, also includes surveillance of Filoviruses. Guatemala participates in this programme.
  • What is the potential risk that Jamaican bats harbour Ebolavirus?
    There has been no testing for Filoviruses (including the genus Ebolavirus) in Jamaican bats, so we must assess the risk based on information from: (a) other surveillance programmes; (b) the phylogeny (i.e. genetic relationships) and biogeography (i.e., distributions) of Filoviruses and of Old World & New World bats; and (c) the current understanding of Ebolavirus transmission routes -- both wildlife-to-wildlife and wildlife-to-human.

    Based on the currently-available information about the distribution of the virus Family Filoviridae and of the five virus species in the genus Ebolavirus -- notably that they (or antibodies to them) have been detected in free-ranging wildlife ONLY in the Old World and no surveillance programmes have reported Filoviridae in any wildlife (including bats) in the New World --
    The probability that Jamaican bats harbour Ebolavirus is VERY LOW.
    But given the fatal seriousness of Ebola, follow what is always good advice:
    Avoid direct handling of wildlife (including blood, tissue products, and other body fluids).
    Don't touch or eat any animal carcass you find.
    Don't eat bats (Order Chiroptera) or primates (Order Primates).

    The very low risk that Jamaican bats carry an Ebolavirus does not mean that they couldn't harbour other types of blood-borne pathogens and parasites found in New World bats -- without a surveillance programme, we can't say.

    The one disease of which everyone should be aware is Histoplasmosis, a respiratory disease caused by the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum.   It grows in soils enriched by animals droppings, including those from bats and birds (e.g., poultry farms).
    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides information about Histoplasmosis prevention and treatment .

    How can we protect Jamaican bats (and ourselves) from alien Ebolaviruses?
    The natural geographical isolation of Jamaica, surrounded by the Caribbean Sea, leads researchers to predict that our island wildlife has fewer pathogens and parasites compared to mainland ecosystems, leaving them immunologically-naïve to micro-organisms commonly found in mainland wildlife. To protect our native and endemic wildlife:

  • We recommend a ban on any introduction of Old World Pteropodidae bats, a Family which is commonly displayed in zoos because of the impressive size (e.g., 1.6m (~5 ft) wingspan) of many species.
  • We remind everyone that the introduction or importation of monkeys to Jamaica is prohibited under the The Animals Diseases (Importation) Control Regulations, 1948 (Amended 1989), [Regulations (under section 14) for The Animals (Diseases and Importation) Act, 1948 (Amended 1969)].
  • Don't smuggle in ANY animal or plant into Jamaica:   work with the proper permitting and quarantine authorities; otherwise you risk smuggling in a potentially lethal disease-causing micro-organism with any alien plant or animal.
  • Don't eat bat or primate meat anywhere in the World, but especially not in Africa, Asia, and Austalia where Pteropodidae fruit bats occur.
  • Follow all recommendations by MSF, WHO, and other experts to reduce Human-to-Human transmission of Ebola.

  • References Used to Prepare This Webpage:
    Animals (Diseases and Importation) Act, 1948. (Amended 1969). Government of Jamaica. Available electronically through Ministry of Justice, GoJ: http://www.moj.gov.jm/laws/animals-diseases-and-importation-act

    Animals Diseases (Importation) Control Regulations, 1948. (Amended 1989). Government of Jamaica.

    Barrette, R.W., S.A., Metwally, J.M. Rowland, L. Xu, S.R. Zaki, S.T. Nichol, P.E. rollin, J.S. Towner, W.J. Shieh, B. Batten, et al. 2009. Discovery of swine as a host for the Reston ebolavirus. Science: 325(5937): 204-206. doi: 10.1126/science.1172705.

    Carroll S.A., J.S. Towner, T.K. Sealy, L.K. McMullan, M.L. Khristova, F.J. Burt, R. Swanepoel, P.E. Rollin, and S.T. Nichol. 2013. Molecular evolution of viruses of the family Filoviridae based on 97 whole-genome sequences. Journal of Virology. 87:2608–2616. doi: 10.1128/JVI.03118-12.

    Larsen, P.A., S.R. Hoofer, M.C. Bozeman, S.C. Pederson, and H.H. Genoways. 2007. Phylogenetics and phylogeography of the Artibeus jamaicensis complex based on Cytochrome-b DNA sequences. Mammology Papers: University of Nebraska State Museum. Paper 53. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/museummammalogy/53

    Leroy, E.M., P. Rouquet, P. Formenty, S. Souquiere, A. Kilbourne, J-M. Froment et al. 2004. Multiple Ebola virus transmission events and rapid decline of Central African wildlife. Science 303: 387-390.

    Leroy, E.M., B. Kumulungui, X. Pourrut, P. Rouquet, A. Hassanin, P. Yaba, A. Delicat, J.T. Paweska, J-P. Gonzalez. and R. Swanepoel. 2005. Fruit bats as reservoirs of Ebola virus. Nature 438:575-576. doi:10.1038/438575a

    Maganga, G.D., J. Kapetshi, N. Berthet, B.K. Ilunga, F. Kabange, P. M. Kingebeni, V. Mondonge, et al. 2014. Ebola virus disease in the Democratic Republic of Congo. New England Journal of Medicine 2014; 141021130018004 doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1411099.

    Negredo A, G. Palacios G, S. Vázquez­Morón, F. González F, H. Dopazo, et al. 2011. Discovery of an Ebolavirus­Like Filovirus in Europe. PLoS Pathogens 7(10): e1002304.
    Published online Oct 20, 2011. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1002304

    Olival, K.J. and D.T.S. Hayman. 2014. Filoviruses in Bats: Current Knowledge and Future Directions. Viruses. Apr 2014; 6(4): 1759–1788.
    Published online Apr 17, 2014. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/v6041759

    Ortega, J. and I. Castro-Arellano. 2001. Artibeus jamaicensis. Mammal Species No. 662. Published by American Society of Mammalogists.

    Pigott, D.M., N. Golding, A. Mylne, Z. Huang, A.J. Henry, D.J. Weiss, O.J. Brady, et al. 2014. Mapping the zoonotic niche of Ebola virus disease in Africa. eLife 2014;3:e04395. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.04395

    Pourrut, X., A. Delicat, P.E. Rollin, T.G. Ksiazek, J-P. Gonzalez, and E.M. Leroy. 2007. Spatial and temporal patterns of Zaire ebolavirus antibody prevalence in the possible reservoir bat species.. Journal of Infectious Diseases 196 (Supplement 2): S176-S183. doi: 10.1086/520541.

    Pourrut X., M. Souris, J.S. Towner, P.E. Rollin, S.T. Nichol, J.P. Gonzalez, and E.M. Leroy. 2009. Large serological survey showing cocirculation of Ebola and Marburg viruses in Gabonese bat populations, and a high seroprevalence of both viruses in Rousettus aegyptiacus. BMC Infectious Diseases. 2009:9 doi: 10.1186/1471-2334-9-159.

    Shah, S. 2009. The spread of new diseases: the climate connection. On-line article, Yale University.

    Simmons, N. B. 2005. Order Chiroptera. In: Mammal species of the World: a taxonomic and geographic reference, Third Edition (D. E. Wilson and D. M Reeder, eds.). Smithsonian Institution Press.   Online database: www.vertebrates.si.edu/msw/mswcfapp/msw/index.cfm

    Taylor, D.J., K. Dittmar, M.J. Ballinger, and J.A. Bruenn. 2011. Evolutionary maintenance of filovirus-like genes in bat genomes. BMC Evolutionary Biology 11: 336
    Published online Nov 17, 2011. doi:10.1186/1471­2148­11­336

    Taniguchi, S., S. Watanabe, J.S. Masangkay, T. Omatsu, T. Ikegami. P. Alviola, N. Ueda, K. Iha, H. Fujii et al. 2011. Reston ebolavirus antibodies in bats, the Philippines. Emerging Infectious Diseases 17: 1559-1560. doi:10.3201/eid1708.101693.

    Walsh, P.D., T. Breuer, C. Sanz, D. Morgan, and D. Doran-Sheehy. 2007. Potential for Ebola transmission between gorilla and chimpanzee social groups. American Naturalist 169: 684-689.

    Weingartl, H.M., C. Embury-Hyatt, C. Nfon, A. Leung, G. Smith, and G. Kobinger. 2012. Transmission of Ebola virus from pigs to non-human primates. Scientific Reports 2: Article number: 811. doi:10.1038/srep00811

    Whitfield, J. 2003. Ape populations decimated by hunting and Ebola virus. Nature 422: 551 | doi:10.1038/422551a

    Virus Pathogen Database and Analysis Resource (ViPR) online database: Filoviridae [http://viprbrc.org/brc/home/home.spg?decorator=filo]

    Yuan, J., Y. Zhang, J. Li, Y. Zhang, L-F. Wang, and Z. Shi. 2012. Serological evidence of ebolavirus infections in bats, China. Virology Journal 9: 236.
    Published online Oct 13, 2012. doi:10.1186/1743­422X­9­236