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Abby Phillip

Africans still eating bush meat despite Ebola risk

Published on Aug 7, 2014 7:22 PM
Girls look at a poster, distributed by UNICEF, bearing information on and illustrations of best practices that help prevent the spread of Ebola virus disease (EVD), in the city of Voinjama, in Lofa County, Liberia in this April 2014 UNICEF handout photo. TO THE foreign eye, it looks like a flattened, blackened lump of unidentifiable animal parts. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

TO THE foreign eye, it looks like a flattened, blackened lump of unidentifiable animal parts.

To many Africans, however, bush meat - the cooked, dried or smoked remains of a host of wild animals, from bats to monkeys - is not only the food of their forefathers, but also life-sustaining protein.

And as it has been during past Ebola outbreaks, bush meat is once again suspected to have been the bridge that caused the deadly disease to go from the animal world to the human one.

All it takes is a single transmission event from animal to human - handling an uncooked bat with the virus, for example - to create an epidemic. Human-to-human contact then becomes the primary source of infection.

"If you know that the Ebola virus is introduced in one area, it's probably an extra good time to stop eating bush meat," said Dr Daniel Bausch, an associate professor of tropical medicine at Tulane University.

What is bush meat? It varies. It can be chimpanzee, gorilla or monkey. It could also be rat, deer or fruit bat. The animals are captured and sold for sustenance where other sources of protein from domesticated animals are scarce or prohibitively expensive.

West Africans said they have been eating bush meat for longer than anyone can remember. And even where it is outlawed and frowned upon by conservationists, you can still find it available in markets and on street corners.

"Life is not easy here in the village," Guinean Saa Fela Leno told the Guardian newspaper. "(The authorities and aid groups) want to ban our traditions...

"Animal husbandry is not widespread here because bush meat is easily available. Banning (it) means a new way of life, which is unrealistic."

Uneducated villagers have sometimes been more inclined to blame the presence of medical teams for the spread of the virus, rather than bush meat or contact with sick friends or relatives.

According to Dr Bausch, the spread of Ebola in West Africa is a confluence of unfortunate events. Poverty, weak governance, domestic unrest and perhaps even weather have combined to create the worst Ebola outbreak in history.

Fruit bats are thought of as the likeliest candidate of nature's reservoir for Ebola - that is, an animal that carries the disease without any signs of illness.

One might think that fear of the unknown might compel Africans to avoid the meat at all costs, at least until the outbreak has passed. But it likely has not.

Cameroon Tribune reporters visited a market recently and found thatbesides the enormous amount of smoked bush meat on display, the amount of fresh meat available outweighs that which has been smoked.

Hunters and preparers of bush meat are among the most at risk. "If it is cooked or smoked, there is essentially zero risk," Dr Bausch said. "All the risk is to the preparer. So you have to have contact with the relatively fresh blood or bodily fluids of the animal."

For hunters, bush meat can pose acute dangers. Bites, scratches or contact with faeces of bats, infected primates or other sick animals might transmit the disease.

Sick animals might be even more likely to end up in the traps of hunters because they are slower or might already be dead when they are found. Even in a dead but infected animal, the virus can survive - though only for so long.

If there is scepticism about the risk of Ebola among West Africans, it does not help that before this outbreak, Ebola - particularly the strain that is currently spreading - had never before occurred in that part of the world.

"The only other places that we've seen this particular species of Ebola are in three counties in Central Africa," said Dr Bausch.

Instead of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo and Gabon, the countries where this strain of Ebola is usually found, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have borne the brunt of this outbreak.

According to the World Health Organisation, 886 of the 887 deaths recorded have occurred in those three West African countries. So how exactly did Ebola-carrying bats get from Central to Western Africa? Scientists do not know yet.

It could be that migratory bats from one part of Africa travelled hundreds of kilometres over time, infecting other bats and animals along the way. And they might have created an infected population near Gueckedou, Guinea, the epicentre of the current outbreak.

Another source could well have been other bush meat animals, like primates, which can contract Ebola just like humans do. The disease sickens and eventually kills them, but one could have ended up on a butcher's block before it died from the disease.

In a recent paper, Dr Bausch suggested that the timing of this outbreak - during a dry season in West Africa - might have influenced the size of the infected bat population.

"Although more in-depth analysis of the environmental conditions in Guinea over the period in question remains to be conducted," he and co-author Lara Schwarz wrote, "inhabitants in the region do indeed anecdotally report an exceptionally arid and prolonged dry season, perhaps linked to the extreme deforestation of the area over recent decades.

At present, we can only speculate that these drier ecologic conditions somehow influence the number or proportion of Ebola virus-infected bats and/or the frequency of human contact with them."