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Ebola in pigs 'new health threat'

20th July 2009

A team of scientists in the Philippines has warned that a member of the Ebola family of viruses has been found in pigs, causing concern.

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Researchers writing in the journal Science said the news that pigs had been infected with the Reston Ebola virus, known as REBOV, could be the first indication of an emerging health threat.

REBOV is known to cause disease only in non-human primates, although it has been detected in humans as well.

It gets its name from a laboratory in Reston, Virginia, which found it in monkeys sent from the Philippines in 1989.

Study co-author and top Philippines animal health official Magdalena Cruz said the virus could become far more of a threat to humans if it got the chance to mutate in pigs, which often provide an intermediate stage for mutation to a form that causes disease in people.

Cruz said her team was alarmed about the situation in the swine population, which prompted animal health officials to close two farms.

Blood samples were taken from 6,500 pigs and 50 workers after pigs started to get sick from an unidentified pathogen last year.

The presence of REBOV was confirmed in a US laboratory test last October in some of the pigs and six of the humans tested.

Genetic testing revealed that it had been circulating in the pigs for just as long as in the Reston monkeys.

None of the people who had contracted the virus became sick, but they all had some contact with the pigs.

Theories about how REBOV got into the pigs have included a third, unknown host, which transmitted the virus from monkeys to pigs.

Bats have played a role in Ebola transmission in the past.

Cruz called for government measures to ensure the reporting of any sick pigs, and to crack down on illegally slaughtered meat sales. This should help reduce circulation among the pig population, she said.

Cruz said researchers were still unsure exactly how REBOV mutates. No vaccines currently exist for the virus in either humans or animals.

Philippines officials have said the country sorely lacks research and development capacity to monitor REBOV's development effectively.

Senator Richard Gordon called on other countries to play a role in containing the virus.

Gordon said the emergence of new diseases or the development of stronger strains of previously known diseases was now posing a big problem.

Researchers said that seemingly random, sporadic fatal outbreaks of disease in people and monkeys had prompted further investigation of filoviruses, of which Ebola is one.

The Philippines has been experiencing unusually severe outbreaks of porcine reproductive and respiratory diseases in recent months, and these outbreaks had prompted Cruz's team to investigate further.



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