Would you rather have malnourished children or an Ebola outbreak? Tough choice

Study suggests eating wild meat is actually correlated with lower malnutrition rates in children. But there's the risk of Ebola and other diseases.

THIS week, the first large-scale trials of two experimental vaccines against Ebola begun in Liberia.

On Monday, the first 12 volunteers received a dose of one of the vaccines, launching vaccine trials there. About 30,000 volunteers are expected to participate in the trial, which will test the efficacy of the two vaccine preparations.

More than 8,500 people have died in the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Thankfully, the disease seems to have turned a corner, with the number of new cases dropping dramatically in the past few weeks. In Liberia, for example, just four cases were recorded last week, according to the World Health Organisation.

Although this is a welcome development, ironically, it is not such good news for the vaccine trials.

Researchers are injecting volunteers with compounds intended to provoke an immune response. But the only way to know if the vaccine is working is if the person is exposed to the disease.

If nobody gets exposed to Ebola after getting the shot, “doctors won’t be able to tell for sure if the vaccine is effective.”

Still, scientists can measure the immune response in volunteers by blood tests, and the vaccine might get approved on that basis alone.

As West Africa slowly recovers, the vaccine turns the world’s attention on the “next epidemic”.

Scientists believe bats triggered the current outbreak, and have even traced the first infections to a hollow tree in southern Guinea. The Ebola virus infects and replicates inside bats, but doesn’t kill the animals, so bats can easily spread the disease.

The eating of bushmeat – bats included – is believed to have transferred the deadly virus from the animals to humans.

Governments and health workers thus warn people against the eating of bushmeat, but wild animals are an important source of protein, B vitamins, iron and zinc for many communities in Africa.

In the Congo Basin for example, people eat an estimated one million tonnes of bushmeat a year – translating into the killing of a possible 300 million animals for their meat.

You might think that the risk of contracting a deadly haemorrhagic fever would be enough to deter people from eating bats and forest rats.

But the reality is more complicated than that. A new study published in the science journal Nature suggests that in Central Africa, eating wild meat is correlated with lower malnutrition rates in children.

The study compared stunting– having a significantly shorter height-for-age in children – in two geographical areas of the Congo basin: the deep rainforest where few people live, and the northern rainforest-savanna belt where the population density is higher.

The researchers found that although animals in the dense rainforest are more ecologically vulnerable to overexploitation, as they are large and reproduce slowly (for example, chimpanzees and gorillas), the human communities who lived there had taller, better-nourished children.

The stunting of children was more prevalent in the rainforest-savanna areas that had smaller, faster-reproducing animals like bats and rodents.

They concluded that the communities in the dense forest hunted wild animals in a more responsible and sustainable manner, in a way that allowed their dietary requirements to be met without threatening the ecosystem too much.

But those on the fringes of the forest had hunted the big animals to depletion, and were now targeting the smaller animals – but even so, it was not enough to meet their needs (and regular farmed meat was prohibitively expensive), hence the higher malnutrition rates.

A similar study of children in rural northeastern Madagascar showed that lack of access to wild meat causes a 29% increase in the numbers of children suffering from iron deficiency anemia and a tripling of anemia cases among children in the poorest households.

In effect, adequate human nutrition is likely in rural landscapes, but as the analyses showed, collapses around urban areas, where child malnutrition is more prevalent.

But the researchers hastened to add that this was not a carte-blanche for unfettered access rights for the poor “nor draconian conservation schemes.” What it does underline, rather, is the need to consider a wider political agenda for developing practical policies that benefit both people and biodiversity.  

And it has health implications too, as the Ebola outbreak has shown. Would governments prefer malnourished children to an Ebola epidemic? Although Ebola will certainly have the shock factor, poor nutrition in children is insidious but devastating.

The cognitive and physical damage caused by malnutrition during the 1,000-day-window from pregnancy to the age of two is severe and often irreversible, with profound consequences for a child’s future and the futures of communities and societies.

According to the World Bank’s Global Monitoring report 2012, a malnourished child has on average a seven-month delay in starting school, a 0.7 grade loss in schooling, and potentially a 10-17% reduction in life-time earnings – damaging future human capital and causing national GDP losses estimated at 2-3%.

It’s a tough call.

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