The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it had recorded 4 293 cases of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in five West African countries as of 6 September 2014. The death toll from the worst Ebola outbreak in history had reached at least 2 296, the WHO said three days later, adding that this figure was likely to climb considerably when more information was available from Liberia.
- Ebola first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, in Nzara, Sudan (151 deaths), and in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo (280 deaths).
- The latter was in a village situated near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name.
- Genus Ebolavirus is one of three members of the Filoviridae family (filovirus), along with Marburgvirus and Cuevavirus.
- Ebolavirus comprises five distinct species, of which three have caused large EVD outbreaks in Africa
Various species of African fruit bats are believed to be the natural reservoirs for the Ebola virus, and they pass on the infection to a number of different mammal species, many of which are hunted and butchered for ‘bushmeat’.
People across Central and West Africa consume vast amounts of a wide variety of wild animals every year, including fruit bats. When the virus infects humans, it is rapidly transmitted among members of a community through body fluids. Although there have been a number of outbreaks of EVD since it was first recognised in 1976, the current epidemic is by far the most serious.
The ‘bushmeat crisis’ had exercised the minds of conservationists for a number of years, particularly where over-exploitation is of concern. Of course, wild animals have been an important source of protein for Africans for thousands of years; but the rapid increase in human numbers, the demand for bushmeat in urban areas, and the improved access to vast areas of the continent through various forms of development, particularly logging in remote areas, has greatly increased the pressure on wild animals for human consumption. When it comes to primates, there is growing concern that human consumption of these species is a real threat to their future existence.
Although infected primates and other species can pass the virus on to humans who make contact with their tissues and body fluids, they are believed to be accidental hosts of the bat virus, just as humans are.
A recent survey of bushmeat in Angola revealed a wide variety of species being exploited, including duiker and other antelopes, several kinds of monkeys, hyrax, squirrels, civet, genet, cane rat, pangolin, crocodile and monitor lizard. Emerging from a debilitating civil war, Angola is currently ‘booming’ as its oil and other natural assets attract would-be buyers, eager to make friends to secure resources. The Chinese have demonstrated their friendship by building roads, which are helping to open up more remote areas and therefore more access to bushmeat. Most larger bushmeat species in Angola are hunted with shotguns, while smaller species are snared.
Across Africa, bushmeat is used both for food as well as a source of cash income for rural dwellers and hunters. Most animals are offered for sale as fresh meat, and if they are carrying the Ebola virus, they are a source of infection for both the hunters and anyone else who comes into contact with their flesh or body fluids. Without access to refrigeration, fresh carcasses not sold the same day are smoked and dried, and in this form they are durable goods that can be transported to the point of sale. Smoking and drying destroys the Ebola virus and there is no threat to human health from bushmeat processed in this way – which is a good thing, because preserved bushmeat is regularly smuggled into European countries and North America by Africans who want something to remind them of home!
With a mortality rate of 50-60%, no vaccine and only experimental drugs for treatment, Ebola is a fearsome disease, particularly in Africa where outbreaks often occur in remote areas without proper heath care services, let alone the availability of isolation facilities for infected patients and protective equipment for their care-givers.
Traditional practices around religion, death and burial add further complications because they frequently involve close physical contact. The ritual preparation of bodies for burial may involve washing, touching and kissing the deceased. If that person has died from Ebola, their body will have a very high viral load. Bleeding is a typical symptom of the disease prior to death. Those who handle the body and come into contact with the blood or other body fluids are at greatest risk of catching the disease. It is very difficult to educate people that practising these traditional rituals can pose a deadly threat to themselves.
People working as doctors and nurses in rural African hospitals are also at grave risk, and a number of them have died after contracting the Ebola virus. In the early stages of the disease the symptoms are not unlike those of influenza, with fever, muscle pain and a sore throat, so special precautions are often not taken when dealing with such a patient. Once an EVD outbreak is confirmed, health-care workers require gloves, masks and protective clothing to prevent contact with body fluids.
Ivory Coast, Ghana, Liberia and Guinea have banned the sale of bushmeat in an effort to prevent the spread of EVD. This is unpopular with locals and unlikely to be effective. There are no ready alternatives to bushmeat as a source of protein to millions of Africans – and the scale of consumption is enormous. Robert Nasi, Deputy Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), recently said (http://allafrica.com/stories/201409031432.html) that people living in Africa’s Congo Basin annually eat about 5 million tons of bushmeat – from caterpillars to elephants. “That’s about the equivalent of the cattle production of Brazil or the European Union. Bushmeat is the cheapest protein available beside caterpillars.”
However, unless bushmeat utilisation is managed on a sustainable basis, supplies are rapidly going to run out, and in the process a number of African species will be brought to extinction. Not even the deadly Ebola virus will act as a deterrent, and African governments will have to take responsibility for the conservation of their biodiversity.