Research on potential Ebola vaccines should seek to protect great apes as well as humans to prevent the disease from decimating gorilla and chimpanzee populations, say experts. Work is continuing on trials of potential Ebola vaccinesand the rate of fresh cases of the disease in the West African outbreak is slowing.

But unrelated outbreaks among Central Africa’s great ape populations could happen at any time, says a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature(IUCN). The study estimates that Ebola has wiped out thousands of gorillas and chimpanzees since the early 2000s, with some rainforests experiencing a 90 per cent decline in their great ape populations.

The last Ebola outbreak in Central Africa to affect great apes was in 2005. Since then, no further instances of Ebola among great apes have been documented. But according to Doug Cress, who coordinates the UN’s Great Apes Survival Partnership programme, the situation is “a waiting game”. He fears that, if no vaccine is forthcoming, the next outbreak could wipe out some ape populations already decimated by poaching, disease and habitat loss.

“[Central Africa] is where the largest populations of gorillas and chimpanzees are, but also where the fastest growing human populations are,” he says. “Traditionally, it’s where some of the deadliest diseases have broken out, and there is also political and civic instability. It’s a perfect storm that needs to be addressed.”

The IUCN report, which was written last year but only announced this month, suggests conservation strategies to 2025. It says the rush to create a human vaccine for Ebola sparked by the West African outbreak is an opportunity to develop a vaccine for the central chimpanzee and the critically endangered western lowland gorilla. But it admits that, even with an effective vaccine, it could prove technically tricky to vaccinate these wild and free-ranging animals.

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