Scientists are studying African birds in an attempt to identify the mysterious source of the Ebola virus. In the Republic of Congo, where there was a recent outbreak, people probably got the disease from infected gorilla meat. But gorillas are also being killed by Ebola, so they’re not the source of the disease. “As long as we haven’t established the source of reservoir of the Ebola virus, it’s an illusion to think of an appropriate cure,” says William Karesh, of the U.S. Wildlife Conservation Society.

Researchers David Sanders and Scott Jeffers noticed strong structural similarities between Ebola and some bird retroviruses. “The biochemistry of entry of Ebola [into a cell] is really similar to bird retroviruses. It is clear that they have a common ancestor,” says Sanders. “We suggest the possibility that the current natural reservoir is a bird host.”

The central African rift valley separates the bird species into western and eastern varieties. Ebola outbreaks occur in central and western Africa but not in the east, meaning the birds that carry the virus must live on the western side of the valley.

Ornithologists Townsend Peterson and Nate Rice will fly to Equatorial Guinea to collect samples of liver and spleen tissue from about 100 species of birds, using gloves and masks. Peterson thinks a mammal is more likely to be the host, and suspects bats. But he says, “Birds certainly merit examination.”

Gorillas are being struck by Ebola, as well as humans. Dr. Jean-Christophe Vie, of the IUCN, World Conservation Union, says, “Chimpanzees and gorillas are already endangered, and Ebola adds yet another threat to those already facing these species, such as deforestation and the wild meat trade.”

Six gorillas, all from one family group that had been studied by researchers for 10 years, were found dead in a sanctuary in northwestern Congo. It was clear they succumbed to disease. It was then discovered that eight other gorilla families had disappeared from the sanctuary over the previous two months. Primates can catch many human diseases because of their close relationship to us. Conservationists have worked hard to convince local hunters not to kill and eat the gorillas and to encourage tourism. Now it looks like Ebola may wipe them out in the wild. Find out what it’s like to be in the midst of an Ebola outbreak.

There’s just no end to what doctors don’t tell us.

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