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August 3rd, 2009
06:36 PM ET

Dispatches from the field: Virus hunting in Cameroon

Program Note: Today, a report about the discovery of the origin of Malaria was released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Dr. Nathan Wolfe, an epidemiologist, authored the report. Wolfe leads the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), which has been working with the  Cameroon government, Limbe Wildlife Sanctuary and the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund/Ape Action Africa to learn more about common diseases of wild animals and to explore the origins of human diseases in order to predict and prevent them. Read these dispatches from members of Wolfe's research team in Cameroon. And tune in tonight to hear from Dr. Wolfe – a so-called virus hunter – and to learn more about the discovery. AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.

Much of the research performed by GVFI takes place in a Chimpanzee sanctuary in Cameroon.

Much of the research performed by GVFI takes place in a Chimpanzee sanctuary in Cameroon.
Anderson and virus hunter Dr. Nathan Wolfe in Cameroon.

Anderson and virus hunter Dr. Nathan Wolfe in Cameroon.

From cattle ranching to the frontlines of research

Ahmadou Nana
Vet, Global Viral Forecasting Initiative – Cameroon

I grew up in a family of cattle ranchers. This probably explains my choice of career as a vet. The love I have for my profession has led me to work in veterinary clinics where I have worked with pets, in commercial animal production and also in the wildlife sanctuaries managed by Ape Action Africa/CWAF and Limbe Wildlife Centre where I currently work with GVFI.

The thing that worries me most since I entered the world of research is the permanent need for us to avoid zoonotic epidemics and pandemics, especially as many of our populations depend on hunting and raising of animals and don’t know the risks that they face in handling animals without precautions.

My daily routine involves collaborating with the sanctuaries who collect blood samples and feces from the animals. I then bring them to the lab for processing and testing. I also head to forest areas to collect samples from animals hunted in villages in the hope of making discoveries that could save human or animal lives. I have much hope and am convinced of what I do because one day I know I will have participated in saving many lives.

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New solutions to old problems

Joseph Le Doux Diffo
Rural Site Researcher, GVFI – Cameroon

I began working on wildlife years ago when I was doing my masters at the University of Yaounde in Cameroon in 1999.

I did research on the intestinal parasites of wild and pet monkeys of Cameroon and identified numerous parasites apparently similar to those found in humans. I also worked on reptiles, studying the fauna of Bouba Ndjida National Park in Cameroon.

After meeting Dr Nathan Wolfe from GVFI I started work on lizard malaria and this was the beginning of a long period of interesting research including a trip to the Malaria Diagnostics Centre of Excellence in Kisumu, Kenya.

Working with wildlife sanctuaries and with hunters in remote forest areas of Cameroon was the next step. Collaboration with sanctuaries includes collecting blood and feces from primates to search for malaria and viruses. I now share my working time in the field and in the lab doing sample processing and primate blood slide readings.

FULL POST

August 3rd, 2009
06:35 PM ET

'The origin of malignant malaria'

Anderson with Dr. Nathan Wolfe, a virus hunter who has published new research about the origins of Malaria.

Anderson with Dr. Nathan Wolfe, a virus hunter who has published new research about the origins of Malaria.

Program Note: Posted below is the latest article from Dr. Nathan Wolfe, a virus hunter who believes he has discovered how humans first contracted Malaria. One of the world's deadliest diseases, Malaria claims the lives of more than 1 million people a year, most of whom are children. Dr. Sanjay Gupta will have a full report on the study and Dr. Wolfe will join us on AC360° tonight at 10p ET.

Dr. Nathan D. Wolfe et al.
Global Viral Forecasting Initiative

The distinguished anthropologist Frank B. Livingstone conjectured that P. falciparum may have been acquired by a transfer to humans of a chimpanzee parasite. The plausibility of Livingstone’s hypothesis was based on the supposition that, as humans developed increasingly larger agricultural societies, they encroached upon the dwindling forest habitats of species such as the chimpanzee, and so there may have been repeated opportunities for horizontal transfer.

Today, human encroachment into the last forest habitats has further extended, leading to a higher risk of transfer of new pathogens, including new malaria parasites. Our results confirm Livingstone’s conjecture and, moreover, suggest that the world’s extant populations of P. falciparum derive from a single transfer of P. reichenowi from chimpanzees to humans.

How and when did the host transfer occur? A hypothesis proposed in the past was that the ancestors of P. falciparum would have been transferred from another host to humans as our Neolithic ancestors transitioned from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists some 10,000 years ago. This proposal was based on anthropological information about the history of our species, but also on the estimated age of hemoglobin mutants that render humans resistant to malaria infection.

Click here to read the rest of the article...

August 3rd, 2009
06:34 PM ET

'Humanity's Burden': Malaria's global journey

Mosquitoes, especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa, may transmit malaria to humans.

Mosquitoes, especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa, may transmit malaria to humans.

James L. A. Webb, Jr
Professor, Colby College

Malaria is the oldest of the human infectious diseases. Over tens of thousands of years, as early humanity expanded in tropical Africa and across tropical Eurasia, malaria parasites took advantage of our human propensity to migrate and our social need to congregate.

Malaria traveled with infected hunters and adventurers across mountain ranges and deserts, and after the domestication of animals, malaria traveled more quickly, galloping across grasslands and plains. It became the principal disease burden of Eurasia as well as tropical Africa. And much, much later, thanks to the technological ingenuity of human beings, malaria sailed with infected passengers on shipboard across the oceans, rode the rails across the continents, and then flew aboard aircraft from one hemisphere to the other. It became a global disease.

Malaria has etched highly varied patterns into human history. In some times and places malaria has appeared as a seasonal affliction and in others as a year-round burden. It has been a debilitator of general populations and a killer that targets young children and non-immunes. For these reasons, our cultural assessments of malaria's significance have been highly diverse, and different societies have 'known' malaria in very different ways.

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August 3rd, 2009
06:32 PM ET

Researcher says he found malaria's origin: in chimps

Researchers compared malaria DNA from infected chimps in Cameroon and Ivory Coast with human malaria.

Researchers compared malaria DNA from infected chimps in Cameroon and Ivory Coast with human malaria.

Stephanie Smith
CNN Medical Producer

Nathan Wolfe is a hunter, but he doesn't carry a gun. His prey are invisible to the naked eye.

Wolfe leads expeditions into the mysterious world of viruses and pathogens.

"They are everywhere," said Wolfe, a microbiologist who speaks of his targets - infectious organisms - with the giddy lilt of a teenager on a first date. "We have the potential to explore a completely new biological world and go out and really find new things all the time."

One bug has been Wolfe's singular obsession for more than a decade, arguably the biggest menace to humans: malaria.

"If you think about HIV virus as a singular hurricane event, malaria is like the hurricane that's been hitting for thousands of years - constantly," said Wolfe, who heads a research institute called the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative.

Keep reading...

August 3rd, 2009
04:37 PM ET

Video: How viruses spread

Program Note: Tonight, Dr. Nathan Wolfe joins us on AC360º at 10 P.M. ET to discuss his remarkable findings on the origins of malaria.

April 27th, 2009
11:59 PM ET

The Cosmopolitan Viruses

Program Note: Tune in tonight to hear more from Dr. Nathan Wolfe and the spread of viruses on AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.

Dr. Nathan Wolfe
Epidemiologist
Global Viral Forecasting Initiative

As someone who studies how pandemics are born and how we may be able to predict and prevent them, I’m, of course, fascinated with the outbreak of Swine Flu. I want to understand its biology. Where it comes from, how it initially took hold, and then managed to spread from person to person, landing in places as distant as Nova Scotia, Brazil, and New Zealand.

But I’m also fascinated at how the public, media and government have responded to it, and what our responses mean for the future of our species. Watching the response to the Swine Flu, it occurs to me that when new outbreaks occur, the media and the public can quickly forget history. SARS and H5N1 (the ‘Bird Flu’) and earlier disease spillovers from animals such as HIV fall quickly out of memory. Somehow Swine Flu seems unique: a frightening threat coming from out of the blue, and one that we need to scramble to address.

The Swine Flu is a threat. We know that flu pandemics have the potential to kill millions. But is it unique? Was it unpredictable? Must we repeat this cycle of complacency, dread, and panic that punctuates our increasingly frequent global outbreaks from SARS to H5N1 to Swine Flu…

FULL POST

April 27th, 2009
02:44 PM ET

Video: How viruses spread

Program Note: Tune in tonight to hear more on how viruses spread from Dr. Nathan Wolfe on AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.

In this clip from Planet in Peril: Battle Lines, Anderson Cooper talks to Dr. Nathan Wolfe about disease transmission.

March 26th, 2009
03:16 PM ET

Nathan Wolfe: Deep in the jungle, outwitting the next AIDS

Program Note: CNN’s award-winning Planet in Peril examines the conflict between growing populations and natural resources. Virus hunter Nathan Wolfe was featured in the 2008 Planet in Peril: Battle Lines and showed us how he intends to outwit pandemics by discovering new, deadly viruses when they first emerge.  Learn more about Nathan Wolfe's work here.

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Virus hunter Nathan Wolfe has been called the "Indiana Jones of epidemiology." He's outwitting the next pandemic by staying two steps ahead: discovering new, deadly viruses when they first emerge - passing from animals to humans among poor subsistence hunters in central Africa - and stopping them before they infect millions of people.

On Friday, the short powerful talk Nathan Wolfe delivered at this year's TED Conference (to an audience that included Bill Gates and Al Gore, among others) will be made available online. (Watch it here) In this pithy, passionate talk, he explains the issues he and his team grapple with, in their work outwitting the next AIDS.

He begins with a shot of Magic Johnson, explaining that while most of us think of AIDS as starting in the 1980s, it actually passed to humans from apes many decades earlier, and that there were likely 10,000+ cases even in the 1920s in Congo.

FULL POST

December 11th, 2008
05:03 PM ET

Fighting viruses with viruses

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.
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Dr. Nathan Wolfe
Global Viral Forecasting Initiative

If an alien were to land on earth and write an encyclopedia of life on our planet, what would it include? Would it focus on humans? Animals? Plants, perhaps? In fact, the vast majority of life on earth is invisible to us. Microbes - including viruses, as well as bacteria and their lesser known cousins the archaea - are by far the dominant lifeforms on this planet. They would fill 28 of 30 volumes in our planet’s encyclopedia!

This invisible universe of microbial life - which I call the microcosmos - pervades the planet and even our own bodies: Bacterial cells on and in us outnumber our own cells by 10 to 1; the genetic information they hold outnumbers our own by 1000 to 1. We feel human, yet our bodies are actually complex communities of human and microbial cells living side-by-side.

And it increasingly appears that viruses - those tiny nano-creatures that must infect cells to live - are the most populous and diverse lifeform of all. Viruses infect not only humans and animals, but also bacterial, plant and fungal cells. It is thought that nearly every form of cell-based life harbors a unique virus. Every species of plant, animal, fungus, bacteria… Everything. This, by definition, would make viruses the most diverse forms of life on the planet.

FULL POST

December 11th, 2008
11:20 AM ET

'Planet In Peril' – risk under the microscope

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.
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Karen Saylors
Chief Operating Officer, Global Viral Forecasting Initiative

So I want to do a little blogging about our visit from Anderson Cooper, chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and their road team to the wonderland of the Cameroon forest. The CNN crew came to visit our project a few months ago, flying into Yaoundé late one damp and sticky night. I had been in Cameroon a couple of years at the time, first working in a rural village hospital with Medecins Sans Frontiers on a nasty disease called Buruli Ulcer, a flesh-eating microbacteria that is a problem along the Ngong river in central Cameroon and mostly strikes young children. After a year of doing that, I moved to the capital to run Nathan Wolfe’s field research projects around the country.

Since I had been in Cameroon, the CNN visit was the biggest visit yet, so we decided to take them deep, deep into the forest, to really get a good taste of what we are up to. A lot of our work focuses on working with what we see as high-risk populations, but high risk not in what is often understood in a behavioral, public health sense, but specifically those people who are highly exposed to scenarios where viruses could jump from animals to humans, more under-the-microscope risk. In Cameroon this hotbed of zoonotic transmission is the hunting and butchering realm, where people are hunting to feed their families, and hunting lots of primates, the bigger the better. So we took our intrepid CNN crew up a logging highway to the village of Nyabissang.

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