As Liberia reports 22 more Ebola infections and 10 deaths, increasing the country's total to 196 cases, which includes 116 deaths, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a warning Tuesday, July 22, against eating certain wild animals.
The FAO said that although reducing person-to-person Ebola transmission is the most important focus, it is working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) to raise awareness about transmission risks from wildlife among rural communities that hunt bushmeat to supplement their diets and income.
The agency said communities risk future spillover from species that naturally carry the virus, including fruit bats, some monkeys, and many deer species, if prudent action is not taken.
“We are not suggesting that people stop hunting altogether, which isn’t realistic,” said FAO Chief Veterinary Officer, Juan Lubroth. “But communities need clear advice on the need not to touch dead animals or to sell or eat the meat of any animal that they find already dead.”
He added that people especially in rural communities should also avoid hunting animals that are sick or behaving strangely.
The FAO, however, said fruit bats should be avoided altogether, because they are the most likely host for the virus and can carry it without showing signs of the disease. In West African, fruit bats are eaten dried or in a spicy soup by some communities, the agency added.
Several governments in the region have tried to ban the sale and consumption of bushmeat, but bans have been impossible to enforce and have prompted suspicion from rural populations, the FAO said.
Katrinka de Balough, DVM, FAO veterinary public health officer and Ebola focal point, said in the statement that mistrust, myths, and rumors are among the challenges in controlling the disease. She added that concerns are growing about the impact the outbreak might have on food security in some parts of the region, with some farmers afraid to work in their fields and some markets shut down.
The FAO said it has committed resources and has been working with partners to improve information about the disease using existing networks that include rural radio and agricultural extension services. It also added that it will work with governments to set up wildlife surveillance systems to more quickly detect the virus.
"Rural communities have an important role to play in reporting unusual mortality in the animal population, which is another reason that their collaboration is so crucial," de Balogh said.
Another step will be to assess the role of hunting, with an eye toward identifying healthier, more sustainable livestock production options that can provide more protein and income sources, the United Nations agency said.
Meanwhile, WHO said Liberia's Ministry of Health, and its other health partners are assessing the outbreak response in each country to identify challenges and help set priorities.
A recently completed assessment in Liberia identified a number of gaps, including low coverage of contact tracing; persistent denial about the disease and resistance to response activities in the community; weak data management; inadequate infection and control practices, especially in outlying health facilities; and weak leadership and coordination at the subnational level.
The WHO said some of the challenges are driven by a lack of financial resources and human technical capacity. The agency added that authorities are mapping out the financial, logistics, and human resources needs as part of a national operational plan to battle the Ebola outbreak.
Similar assessments are under way for Guinea and Sierra Leone, as well, the WHO said.
West Africa’s first human cases of Ebola virus disease were suspected to have occurred in December 2013 in rural Guinea, and according to WHO more than 600 people have died from the disease in the region.
The virus kills up to 90% of people who contract it, causing multiple organ failure and, in some cases, severe hemorrhaging. There is currently no vaccine for the
Wynfred Russell is a science and health writer and be contacted at [email protected]