December 11th, 2008
08:47 AM ET

Going where viruses 'jump' to humans

Program Note: CNN’s award-winning Planet in Peril returns this year to examine the conflict between growing populations and natural resources. Anderson Cooper, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and Lisa Ling travel to the front lines of this worldwide battle.
Watch Planet In Peril: Battle Lines Thursday 9p ET

We devote several days on the blog to smart insight and commentary related to the special.

Corina Monagin,
Global Viral Forecasting Initiative Program Coordinator

It was 4:30 in the morning, and I wondered how I got myself into this situation: completely soaking wet, covered in mud, fire ant bites all over my arms, and running through the depths of a Cameroon forest.

Along with my colleague Joseph (a Cameroonian ecologist), we were following a hunter from a small village in hopes of finding primate feces for collection and sampling. We woke early…very early, and while I came prepared in rubber boots, hiking pants, and an amour of various hiking accessories, our guide was in rubber flip flops and a hat that he had crafted from a banana leaf. His walking stride through the forest made me realize that my months in the gym slaving on the elliptical didn’t prepare me – I was running just to keep up.

Along with the hunter showing us his normal tracking route, Joseph was looking for feces from primates. Analyzations and discoveries in samples from the forest can tell us much about different viruses that are in the animal populations living there. They could also possibly help to predict what viruses might be prone to “jump” over to humans that come into contact with them.

As we were walking, the hunter told us stories of how the forest in the area used to be teeming with various animals and how now these animals seemed to have disappeared – forcing him to become more creative in his hunting techniques and perhaps (I thought to myself) putting him at further risk of coming into contact with various viruses.

About an hour in to the “hike”, we had to cross a river and I somehow ended up on the shoulders of the hunter himself (holding his flip flops) as he navigated through the river. After 4 hours of running, a fire ant incident, and drinking water directly from a tree trunk, we suddenly came to a clearing. We were hushed and told to just listen. After a moment of silence that one prays for in a busy day, the forest came alive; monkeys, birds, crickets, water trickling from trees, and the feeling that you are truly in the middle of everything. I had the feeling that this is the place where things begin, where life as we know it started and also where perhaps the very viruses that we hunt, were first transferred to humans.

I was once told that if you can wake up in the morning, look yourself in the mirror and be happy with who you were and what you were doing each day, then you couldn’t really ask for more. My job in the hunt for viruses revolves around the logistical power required to manage a massive global project. It’s easy to forget what goes into our jobs while sitting in front of a computer. It’s easy to forget the people that are on the ground, in the forest in the middle of an African jungle. At that moment in the forest with the life buzzing around me, I knew that I could look at myself in the mirror and I’d be happy with what I saw.

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Forbin

    Dear Anderson,
    I watch a few pictures on the documentary Planet in peril and i am curious to know how the choice of Cameroon was made as the origin of the HIV virus?

    December 11, 2008 at 9:49 am |
  2. Annie Kate

    What a profound experience in the forest listening to it come alive around you, the sounds, the animals, the smells, and the realization that you were probably in the place where what you are looking for probably began. I thank you for sharing an amazing memory with us and I wish you luck in finding that next virus and developing a way to prevent or cure it before it becomes active. Not many of us can say our job so directly and positively benefits mankind.

    December 11, 2008 at 8:20 am |