Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
New research from Virginia Tech has identified the banded mongoose as one of the biggest public health threats in Africa.
According to their report in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health, the mongoose carries a deadly disease called leptospirosis that spreads easily to humans. Often misdiagnosed as malaria, leptospirosis usually begins with a fever and can progress into liver failure, meningitis and eventually death.
“The problem in Botswana and much of Africa is that leptospirosis may remain unidentified in animal populations but contribute to human disease, possibly misdiagnosed as other diseases such as malaria,” Alexander explained.
The banded mongoose flourishes in close proximity to humans living in sub-Saharan Africa, often sharing the same water resources. The disease-causing pathogen can easily pass into the mongoose´s urine and into the soil or water table. Further adding to the danger, many indigenous people also consume the animals as bushmeat.
To identify the mongoose as a carrier of the disease, the researchers conducted a long-term study of human, wildlife and the environment in northern Botswana. They also looked at archived kidney samples from banded mongoose that had been found dead. Of these, 43 percent tested positive for the disease-causing bacterium.
“This pathogen can infect many animals, both wild and domestic, including dogs,” said co-author Sarah Jobbins, a postdoctoral researcher at Virginia Tech. “Banded mongoose is likely not the only species infected.”
After finding evidence of leptospirosis in Botswana, Alexander said she is concerned about the threat it may pose to a population already made vulnerable by a high rate of HIV.
“In much of Africa, people die without a cause being determined,” she said. “Leptospirosis is likely affecting human populations in this region. But without knowledge that the organism is present in the environment, overburdened public health officials are unlikely to identify clinical cases in humans, particularly if the supporting diagnostics are not easily accessible.”
“Given this high prevalence in the mongoose, we believe that Botswana possesses an as-yet-unidentified burden of human leptospirosis,” added Jobbins. “There is an urgent need to look for this disease in people who have clinical signs consistent with infection.”
The team also stressed the public health implications beyond Botswana.
“Investigating exposure in other wildlife, and assessing what species act as carriers, is essential for improving our understanding of human, wildlife, and domestic animal risk of leptospirosis in this ecosystem,” they wrote in their report.
The paper also predicts that ongoing desertification will further concentrate human and animal populations around limited resources and increase the potential for the spread of disease.
“Infectious diseases, particularly those that can be transmitted from animals, often occur where people are more vulnerable to environmental change and have less access to public health services,” said Alexander.”That’s particularly true in Africa.”
“While we’re concerned about emerging diseases that might threaten public health–the next new pandemic — we need to be careful that we don’t drop the ball and stop pursuing important diseases like leptospirosis,” she added.
The researchers said they are planning to alert first-responders and public health officials regarding immediate disease-management measures and the danger posed by the African mongoose population.