Increased efforts are needed to improve awareness among rural communities in West Africa about the risks of contracting the Ebola virus from eating certain wildlife species including fruit bats, FAO warned today.

Public domain image/Mondo Magic
Public domain image/Mondo Magic

Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are struggling to contain the world’s deadliest recorded outbreak of the virus, which is transmitted by direct contact with the blood and body fluids of infected people as well as infected animals.

The West African epidemic is thought to have started when the virus crossed over from infected wildlife into the human population and subsequently began spreading between people.

Curbing human-to-human transmission is the most important focus for governments and international health agencies. However, FAO is working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) to raise awareness of the transmission risks from wildlife among rural communities that hunt for bushmeat – or meat obtained from the forests – to supplement their diets and income. These communities risk future spill-over from species that can carry the virus, including fruit bats, some primates, and duikers.

“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. They should also avoid hunting animals that are sick or behaving strangely, as this is another red flag.” 

Fruit bats – usually eaten dried or in a spicy soup – are thought to be the most likely reservoir species for the virus, which they can carry without developing clinical signs of the disease, and should be avoided altogether, according to FAO.

“The virus is killed when meat is cooked at a high temperature or heavily smoked, but anyone who handles, skins or butchers an infected wild animal is at risk of contracting the virus,” Lubroth said.

Myths and mistrust thwarting efforts

While several governments in the region have attempted to outlaw the sale and consumption of bushmeat, bans have proved impossible to enforce and have met with suspicion from rural communities. 

“There is a lot of mistrust, to the extent that people are hiding patients rather than getting medical help, and it’s very difficult to control the disease in the midst of many myths and rumours,” said Katinka de Balogh, FAO veterinary public health officer and Ebola focal point.

De Balogh said there were growing concerns about the effect the outbreak may have on food security in some parts of the region as some farmers are too afraid to work in their fields, while some markets have also closed down.

FAO action plan

FAO has already committed resources and is working with governments, WHO country offices and other partners in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to improve information about the virus at community-level, using existing networks such as rural radio and agricultural extension services.

“It is critical for rural communities to understand the risks, both of human-to-human transmission and from wildlife, so that they are in a position to make informed decisions themselves,” de Balogh said.

The Organization will work with governments to also set up wildlife surveillance systems to support early detection of the virus, collaborating with wildlife rangers, veterinarians and local universities.  

“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.

In addition, FAO will help to assess the role of hunting in livelihoods with a view to finding healthier and more sustainable long-term livestock production alternatives to provide people with additional protein and income.

West Africa’s first human cases of Ebola virus disease were suspected to have occurred in December 2013, and according to WHO more than 600 people have died from the disease in the region.

Lethal in up to 90 percent of cases, Ebola virus disease causes multiple organ failure and, in some cases, severe haemorrhaging.  There is currently no vaccine for the disease.