THE confirmation that a fourth doctor, this time in Lagos, Nigeria, has contracted the deadly Ebola virus has only deepened worldwide concern at the epidemic. Even the World Bank has stepped in, pledging $200m to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to help the West African nations contain the outbreak.
World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, himself an expert on infectious diseases, said he has been monitoring the spread of the virus and was “deeply saddened” at how it was contributing to the breakdown of “already weak health systems in the three countries”.
But this Ebola crisis may only be the tip of the iceberg. Unless something is done to curb bushmeat hunting we could all be dealing with a far worse situation in years to come.
Key protein source
Bushmeat, the meat of terrestrial wild animals, continues to be widely harvested across the continent of Africa. A report from the Center for International Forestry Research and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity estimates that more than a million tons of bushmeat are harvested from Central Africa each year - this could be anything between 200m to 300m animals a year. To many Africans bushmeat — the cooked, smoked or dried remains of a host of wild animals, from monkeys to bats — is not only a traditional food but provides up to 80% of the protein and fat needed in rural diets in Central Africa
As populations across the continent continue to grow, with estimates that it will double to 2.4 billion by 2050, this situation will only get worse. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), population growth that leads to human encroachment of forests and wildlife reserves, among other factors, will provoke massive killing of wild animals for subsistence or commercial purposes.
The problem is the risk from zoonotic diseases, a contagious disease spread between animals and humans such as Ebola, will grow too. In fact, about 75% of recently emerging infectious diseases affecting humans today are diseases of animal origin.
These diseases are caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi that are carried by animals and insects. Examples of this include anthrax, dengue, Lyme disease, Plague, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, salmonellosis, and the West Nile virus infection.
They can spread fast and cause a huge number of deaths. One example is the “Spanish flu” — the world’s biggest pandemic - which claimed between 50 million and 100 million lives across the globe from 1918 to 1919. Then there is also the virus that causes AIDS, this jumped from chimpanzees to humans at least three times early in the 20th century and sparked a worldwide crisis - since the beginning of the epidemic nearly 30 million people have died from AIDS-related causes. Also, in China in 2003, an unknown virus leapt from bats to civet cats to people. The virus, dubbed SARS, spread to 29 countries and killed at least 774 people.
Globalisation is disease’s friend
Today, globalisation and transportation creates unprecedented opportunity for disease to spread. Not only because of contact between people, but also because infected bushmeat is being carried across borders.
Some experts are worried that efforts to stem the bush meat trade are too meagre. The FAO has warned that increased efforts are needed to improve awareness among rural communities in West Africa about the risks of contracting viruses from eating certain wildlife species.
There is one individual however who is trying to do just this. Since 1999, “virus hunter” Nathan Wolfe is outwitting the next pandemic by staying two steps ahead: discovering deadly new viruses where they first emerge — passing from animals to humans among poor subsistence hunters in Africa — before they claim millions of lives.
Wolfe found that most of the diseases that historically had the greatest impact on humanity, started with animals. Based on this, he created a global network of field sites in viral hot spots where people are highly exposed to animals. This included local villagers and bush meat hunters.
The results were shocking. He discovered that cross-species transmission wasn’t rare; it was happening on a regular basis. What’s more, the current mechanisms for detecting it were wholly inadequate.
In an interview with National Geographic, Wolfe states that “today, global disease control is in the Stone Age.” Scientists typically respond and react after viruses have already spread. Once a major outbreak starts, stopping it is virtually impossible. Yet no global monitoring system exists to identify and control diseases as they emerge. Wolfe and his team seek to do just that—implement a plan to detect the next HIV, Ebola, SARS or West Nile virus at the very point it will most likely originate.