Hunting the hunted – surveilling bushmeat for new viruses

This March the HALI team is planning a small pilot study to investigate zoonotic pathogens in bushmeat (meat from wild animals sometimes illegally harvested) traded and consumed at several villages in the Ruaha ecosystem.  Over the past several years, HALI has been partnering with hunting companies, local communities and community wildlife management area game scouts to investigate samples from hunted and depredated wildlife for zoonotic diseases like tuberculosis.  As part of the PREDICT project, HALI can now expand this surveillance and look at a wider range of pathogens in meat from wild animals to better assess health risks associated with the bushmeat trade from hunting to consumption.

The bushmeat trade is East Africa is very different from Cameroon and other parts of Africa. In Tanzania, bushmeat markets are generally informal and operate underground, and gaining access to meat and wildlife products for sampling can be difficult. Our field team has been working hard to develop relationships at villages in the area to build trust in the HALI project, and to ensure stakeholders that the aim of bushmeat surveillance is to improve food safety and human health.

The bushmeat pilot is one component of PREDICT’s wildlife surveillance strategy in Ruaha, designed to investigate wildlife for viral pathogens at interfaces we consider “high-risk” for disease emergence.  These interfaces are places where humans and wildlife are in close proximity, and where humans are likely to encounter wildlife and be exposed to potentially harmful and infectious material.  The bushmeat trade is considered especially risky for disease emergence (see video), as it involves contact with wildlife through hunting, butchering, and processing meat and other products, along with consumption.

In countries like Cameroon and the Republic of Congo, PREDICT teams with GVFI and the WCS are working with hunters and traders to sample animal carcasses, meat, and other wildlife products to detect viral pathogens, and to identify practices to help minimize exposure and prevent disease transmission between animals and people.  As part of USAID’s Emerging Pandemic Threats Program, other projects like PREVENT are developing surveys that will help quantify different types of human-animal contact, including contact in the bushmeat trade.  Through this research, we hope to gain a better understanding of the viruses circulating in wildlife, so we can develop strategies to prevent transmission at hotspots for disease emergence like underground bushmeat markets in Tanzania.

Dr. Zikankuba Sijali has done a great job developing the new HALI bushmeat surveillance plan, and will be coordinating the pilot activity throughout the month of March.  Because it is a pilot project, we will be learning a lot about how to engage and work at this difficult interface, and expect to have some interesting results and lessons to share.  Keep checking the blog for updates and news from Dr. Sijali on the activity’s progress.

For more information on bushmeat in East Africa, check out the Bushmeat Free East Africa Network (BEAN) website.

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