The article on The Jakarta Post website on Nov. 2 titled Ebola virus found in Kalimantan’s orangutan is highly misleading.
The article states that Nidom and his colleagues have “detected evidence of Ebola virus in several orangutans in Kalimantan”, and that “65 out of 353 orangutans tested positive for Ebola virus”.
Both statements are untrue.
Anyone can check the original research article, which is freely available online in the open access journal PLOS ONE, to verify that neither the Ebola nor Marburg virus has been detected in orangutans.
The paper only tells us that the tested animals have antibodies that react with the Ebola virus. As no viruses (or actually filoviruses) were detected, we cannot know whether the antibody positive animals are also virus positive, and thus potentially be a reservoir for the disease.
It is important to note that the findings in the paper could also be explained by exposure to some other pathogen that induces cross-reacting antibodies with Ebola.
In short, we repeat, we do not know whether orangutans have Ebola or Marburg.
These scientific nuances matter greatly. As scientists we should always ensure that we honestly tell what our research findings indicate. Regrettably, the Post article crosses the line between objective, scientific reporting and unsubstantiated scaremongering.
Of course, we need to be careful. If orangutans do have dangerous Ebola or Marburg like diseases, this should be researched and reported to ensure that the public is informed about possible health risks, and necessary steps can then be taken by the authorities to prevent the disease from spreading.
As long as we do not know this for sure, we should stick to the facts.
As an orangutan conservation scientist I am concerned. Orangutans are frequently killed in both Kalimantan and Sumatra, for a range of reasons. If the news that orangutans have Ebola spreads through local media, it might very well increase the incidence of orangutan killings.
People might not just consider orangutans a nuisance species that affects their crops, but a potential risk to their lives — and take action.
The conservation implications of this inaccurate reporting could therefore be serious.
We plead with Nidom and his colleagues to clarify their findings — what they know and what they don’t know — so that the public and authorities are accurately and objectively informed.