Monday, November 3, 2014

Connections between Ebola, primates, and the bush meat trade

You may or may not have heard by now that many outbreaks of the deadly Ebola virus originated when people handled or ate animals infected with the virus. For those who need a refresher, a virus is an infective agent that is only able to multiply inside a host's living cells; a virus may cause an infection or disease. Fruit bats, primates, porcupines, and other animals can all carry the Ebola virus. It is only when a person touches or ingests the infected animal's bodily fluids (blood, sweat, mucus, etc) that a person risks infection. So, if you pet a chimpanzee on the head, which you're not crazy enough to do, you wouldn't risk getting sick, even if that chimpanzee was infected with Ebola (unless that chimpanzee had a very sweaty head). If you ate that chimpanzee for dinner though, you would risk contracting Ebola.

You may prefer a steak from a cow, but not everyone does
Photo credit: public domain

And there lies the connection between primates, Ebola, and the bush meat trade. Bush meat, or meat from animals that are not domesticated (bred or trained to need and accept the aid of humans), can be a primary source of protein for those living in Africa. Animals may be hunted by individuals simply to feed their own family, or animals may be hunted for commercial profit. More and more urban areas are consuming bush meat though, and in some instances this meat is even seen as a prized delicacy, a symbol of status and wealth.

As you've probably realized by this point, the bush meat trade can cause several problems. For starters, people may consume animals that are endangered or threatened, lowering their already low numbers. In Africa, the bushmeat trade is the most significant immediate threat to wildlife. While hunting primates and other wildlife to feed your family may or may not be sustainable depending on how the quantity and frequency of hunting, the abundance of the hunted animal, and other variables, the commercial bush meat trade is definitely not sustainable. Infant primates or other young offspring will die if their mother is hunted, leading to more loss. Concerning today's topic though, consuming bush meat leads to the transfer of disease from animals to humans. Thus, the bush meat trade is not only bad for the wildlife in the dinner pot but it's also sometimes quite bad for the humans eating out of the pot.

Bush meat in Ghana
 While the Ebola virus is thought to have originated in fruit bats, primates and other animals can carry it as well. Primates are especially a problem because we're so closely related to them. It's very easy for us to contract diseases from primates compared to animals we're not as closely related to. You may have heard that we share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, for example. Well, this close genetic relationship means that many of the diseases we can contract can be contracted by non-human primates too and vice versa. Hepatitis and herpes B can be transmitted from animal to humans, HIV originated in chimpanzees as SIV, and tuberculosis or TB can easily be transmitted from humans to non-human primates.

So in areas where bushmeat is the only source of animal protein available, you may purchase some meat at the local market, take it home and serve it up to your family for a filling dinner, and have unknowingly served an animal that was sick and infected with Ebola. While at first it may seem easy to place the blame on those consuming bushmeat, remember that many have consumed bush meat before without getting sick and may not realize that this is how the disease is transmitted. Those selling bush meat depend on this income to support their families. If people are educated on how Ebola is contacted and how unsafe bush meat is, the demand for it will hopefully decrease, preventing future outbreaks. Providing safe sources of animal protein may be another step towards decreasing the demand for bush meat.

Food for thought: How does this post connect with cultural relativism?

No comments:

Post a Comment