Sadc countries must strengthen their biosafety mechanisms and collaborative research to address emerging health concerns over Ebola and other infectious diseases ravaging across the continent, a senior health official says.
Dr Obadiah Moyo, a medical health practitioner, told participants at a one-day consultative workshop on the Third National Report on The Implementation of The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in Harare this week that new reports that Ebola survivors can spread the disease through unprotected sex should trigger action in Zimbabwe and other Sadc countries.
“Ebola is a case of biological experiments that went wrong,” he said. “There is now a relapse of Ebola cases and new studies show that the virus has been found in semen. Ebola is now sexually transmitted.
“This is not to frighten you, but to jolt you to think seriously about the importance of biosafety. It’s crucial for Zimbabwe and other countries in the region to take biosafety matters seriously.”
Dr Moyo told The Southern Times that he got an alert over the Ebola-sex link through the Global Emerging Pathogens Treatment Consortium (GET) which aims to address humanitarian and health crises, biological and environmental threats arising from emerging and re-emerging highly infectious pathogens through research, logistic and technological capacity building across Africa.
He is the representative for GET in southern Africa.
“We have to be very careful. We must monitor what is being done in our laboratories,” he said. “We can perish as Africans if we don’t monitor and take biosafety issues seriously. Ebola can now be transmitted sexually and this should compel us to strengthen our biosafety mechanism.”
Biosafety refers to the protection of human and animal health and the environment from the possible effects of products of biotechnology.
It involves the evaluation of all possible impacts on human and animal health and environmental safety that may arise from use of technologies.
In earlier studies, scientists thought the Ebola virus could remain in semen for about three months, but in a recent case in West Africa, there is growing concern that infection through sex can happen more than five months later.
Based on the case, health officials are encouraging male Ebola survivors to avoid unprotected sex indefinitely.
Previously, health officials advised using condoms for at least three months.
The findings emerged recently after a detailed case of a 44-year-old Liberian woman whose infection likely came from a 46-year-old man who had Ebola symptoms last September.
She fell ill in March, a week after sex with him, and died. Another woman he had sex with around the same time tested negative.
The Ebola virus spreads through direct contact with an Ebola patient’s blood or other bodily fluids like urine, saliva, semen and sweat.
Once patients recover, health officials say they are not contagious except there is a chance it could still be in semen.
Investigations of other recent Ebola cases in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have pointed to sexual transmission from survivors, but those have not been confirmed, according to the US Centres for Disease Control.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has killed 11 312 of the 28 457 people infected since December 2013, according to the latest WHO figures.
The NBA with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme held the consultative workshop on the Third National Report to review and validate the implementation of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in Zimbabwe.
The report will be published on the Biosafety Clearing House (BCH) country page for Zimbabwe after finalization and ahead of the Paris climate change conference in December this year.
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was adopted by the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on 29 January 2000.
Zimbabwe domesticated the Protocol through the NBA Act of 2006 with the support of the Global Environment Fund. Other participants expressed concerns over issues related to bioterrorism and the unauthorised use of modern biotechnology products.
“These are real issues and we need to keep abreast with new trends and development with regards to the misuse in unauthorized laboratory experiments,” said Dr Jonathan Mufandaedza, head of the NBA.
“Zimbabwe needs to establish a biosafety lab for diagnosis and testing on dangerous diseases and other unauthorised biotechnology products,” he said.
“We have not been taking care of this aspect for years and God knows what has been happening without adequate biosafety testing.”
Other researchers denied claims over the Ebola-sex link arguing evidence of the sexual transmission of the Ebola virus has so far been limited to scarce and inconclusive data.
They argued that Ebola transmission via sex was highly unlikely.
“Ebola <http://www.livescience.com/21954-ebola-virus-outbreak-information.html> typically spreads through contact with bodily fluids, which include blood, vomit, faeces, sweat, saliva, tears — and semen,” Dr William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville, Tennessee told Live Science in an interview recently.
“That means it’s theoretically possible to catch Ebola from sex, but that’s probably not a common transmission route.
“Of all the modes of transmission, that’s going to be the last. It’s a little like asking me, ‘If we’re all going to go from New York to San Francisco, will one of us walk?’ That doesn’t happen too often.”
Africa has unwittingly underestimated the power of western bioterrorism projects which have spearheaded the deliberate release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs (agents) used to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants.
At the height of the Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle in the 1970s, anthrax was used as a biological weapon to eliminate freedom fighters and Africans who supported them.
Perhaps the largest recorded outbreak of anthrax in humans occurred in Zimbabwe during the liberation war and there were a number of ‘unusual features of the epizootic’ as one Rhodesian researcher, Meryl Nass once put it, in a paper titled: “Anthrax Epizootic in Zimbabwe, 1978 – 1980: Due to Deliberate Spread?”
“The disease spread over time from area to area, until six of the eight provinces were affected. Yet anthrax usually appears as a point source outbreak, without significant geographic spread,” he wrote.
“Only the African-owned cattle in the Tribal Trust Lands were affected, cattle belonging to whites were uninvolved. There is a great possibility that the epizootic could have been a biological warfare event.”
Before the 1970s struggle war, anthrax was a rare disease among African communities in Zimbabwe.
“At the beginning of what was to be a major epidemic, it is safe to say that the majority of doctors in Zimbabwe had never seen a case of anthrax. Yet during the war, anthrax became one of the country’s major causes of hospital admissions,” wrote Nass quoting an article by J.C.A Davies and others in the Central African Journal of Medicine.
What was puzzling to the Rhodesian era researchers was the geographic scope of the outbreak which was unusual or anthrax.
They found out that most outbreaks were characterised by a high degree of focality – cases occurred in limited areas but from 1978 to 1980, peak period of the struggle war, the disease spread from area to area targeting border points in which freedom fighters used to cross into Rhodesia.
The white commercial farming areas were completely spared as the timing of the bioterrorism warfare coincided with the final months of the long and brutal independence war.
According to the Southern Rhodesia Report on Public Health, in 1950 they were six human anthrax cases and figures rose sharply to 6 736 by 1980 as the independence war intensified.
“Inferred from this study is that Zimbabwe’s anthrax epizootic is most consistent with the new introduction of the organism by some means into Zimbabwe,” wrote Nass.
“Weighing all available evidence, it is suggested here that a plausible explanation for the sudden peak of anthrax in the Tribal Trust Lands beginning in November 1978, is that one or more units attached to the Rhodesian military may have air-dropped anthrax spores in these territories. This action would expose cattle to the disease through ingestion or inhalation (or both) of anthrax spores.
“Humans would have acquired the disease from meat or meat products.”
From the findings, this epidemic may not have been a natural occurrence and all indicators point to it being a result of deliberate spread — employing anthrax as agent of biological warfare.
Anthrax weapons were developed and tested by Japan, Britain and the US governments during the Second World War and bioterrorism experts say the British tested anthrax weapons on Gruinard Island, a mile off the west coast of Scotland between 1942 and 1943 releasing exploding bombs by airplanes.
“Either of these two methods or other methods could conceivably have been used in Zimbabwe,” wrote Nass in a paper.
The US produced anthrax weapons until about 1970 but sceptics say it is possible that some biological munitions were transferred from the US to other countries prior to the destruction.
According to Ken Flower, head of the Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) during the war, the Rhodesian military was forced initiate bombing campaigns using anthrax as guerillas intensified their attack on Rhodesia.
It was in November 1978, a month after the initiation of the bombing raids, that the first human anthrax cases were reported following an outbreak in cattle. Warfarin poisoning was employed by the Rhodesian military.
In a TV documentary, Jeremy Brickhill, who reported extensively on the war, reported that the Rhodesian CIO and Selous Scouts used anthrax, cholera, thallium-contaminated foodstuffs and organophosphate-impregnated clothing in the later years of the war.
“A case has been made for the possible deliberate use of anthrax as an agent of biological warfare, directed at African-owned cattle, in the final months of the Zimbabwe civil conflict,” Nass further wrote.
“A military role for anthrax can be postulated, given the strategic control of food and other resources that existed at the time. Desperate tactics appear to have been used by the Rhodesian military elsewhere as the war drew to a close.”