Transmission electron micrograph of the ebola virus from the CDC's Public Health Image Libary (

Falling into fear of Ebola or rising to the occasion?

In the last week, two of our grantees have cancelled workshops due to fears of the current Ebola virus outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone that has claimed over 1,000 lives.  One workshop was to be in an unaffected West African country and one was to host Africans outside of Africa.  The J.R.S. Biodiversity Foundation respects our grantees’ decisions regarding the safety of their staff and colleagues but these cancellations do not reflect any foundation policy or recommendation.  Indeed, these choices are very regrettable and similar cancellations of scientific activities may be playing out across Africa.

Ebola is an exceedingly deadly virus and the West African public health systems are proving woefully inadequate for its fast control.  This Ebola incident adds to a tragic amount of preventable suffering on the continent – many more adults and children have died in Africa since the March outbreak from treatable diseases, malnutrition, and maternal and neonatal deaths.

As of today, WHO does not advise any travel or trade restrictions with affected countries and its travel advisory reads:

The risk of a tourist or businessman/woman becoming infected with Ebola virus during a visit to the affected areas and developing disease after returning is extremely low, even if the visit included travel to the local areas from which primary cases have been reported. Transmission requires direct contact with blood, secretions, organs or other body fluids of infected living or dead persons or animal, all unlikely exposures for the average traveler.

As  panic and misinformation spreads about Ebola,  the scientific community – particularly our biodiversity community – has a special responsibility to act with care.  And has a responsibility to act based upon scientific evidence before African countries and their scientists suffer from unwarranted isolation.

Given Ebola’s refuge in bats and other bush animals that are part of the local diet and environment, biodiversity scientists may be able to make special contributions to understanding the pathways and risks of the disease. At JRS, we are pleased to support a deep study of Kenya’s bats that is fostering knowledge and technology transfer to other African countries – including occurrence data, species discovery, call recognition and behavioral information on bats.  Our training grants in biodiversity informatics and hand-held monitoring technologies may someday contribute to the biodiversity, zoonotic disease and vector monitoring needed in sub-Saharan Africa.

We hope for the containment and end of the current Ebola crisis.  And we hope that JRS grantees and our colleagues will not be deterred from their work in Africa and with African colleagues.  If African scientists and conservationists are denied access to global knowledge and collaborations due to fears of Ebola, further harm may be done.  In fact, this is a moment not to do less, but to consider what more we can offer to our African colleagues.