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How to Worry About Ebola

The little-known black market driving the virus’ latest outbreak

The stateside return of two missionaries stricken with Ebola has Americans on edge about the potential for a national outbreak. Fueled by coverage of World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan’s admission that Ebola may be outpacing containment efforts and British border patrol’s recent lack of confidence in their own ability to clamp down on the threat, American media is already awash with shaky stories about possible Ebola cases coming into New York hospitals. Ebola is a scary virus, so this fear is understandable, but the blitz of American early-August media coverage is slowly beginning to give ground to the type of baseless conspiracy theories that paralyzed Italy and nearby nations with xenophobic fear this past April. The truth is, America probably doesn’t need to worry about Ebola’s transmission through infected individuals coming over the border. Instead of reactionary fear, we ought to be proactive and turn a little attention towards the likely vector through which Ebola hopped into human hosts in Guinea this year: our mostly unknown local black market in smuggled meat from African wild animals, or bush meat.

Ebola first emerged in medical literature in 1976, when outbreaks were recorded in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. Then, as it does now, the virus apparently emerged through human contact with bats, pigs, dogs, or other animals, spreading to man through contact or consumption. Although Ebola isn’t airborne like other contagions, and only three of the five known strains of the virus cause illness, it inspires profound fear because of its aggressive transmission and ability to fly under the radar for long periods of time. The virus can lay dormant in a host for up to three weeks before its flu-like symptoms begin to develop. Even then doctors must rule out cholera, hepatitis, malaria, meningitis, and a host of other illnesses before diagnosing Ebola, because its initial symptoms are so unassuming. This makes for a high risk of transmission because, as one doctor in the field put it, “When was the last time you wore gloves, eye protection, and an N-95 [mouth filter] when your son or daughter had diarrhea?” The virus is unique in that it remains active even after a patient dies, so handling the dead can lead to infection. Even those who recover risk carrying Ebola in their bodily fluids, completely free of symptoms. For example the virus can stay present in semen for up to seven weeks.With a mortality rate between 50 and 90 percent, depending on the strain and health conditions, and no known vaccine, it’s little wonder that paranoia and terror accompany even the threat of the virus.

The current Ebola situation, which was officially declared an outbreak by the government of Guinea in early March, involves the especially virulent and fatal Zaire strain. Originating in the rural south of Guinea, near a village called Guéckédou, a lack of medical facilities and a distrust of outsiders helped the outbreak spread to neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone before jumping to Nigeria. Potential cases are now cropping up all over the world. More specifically, the outbreak has been linked to a local penchant in southern Guinea for eating bats, a key Ebola carrier. As of August 6, the WHO claims the death toll has reached 932 with over 1,700 reported cases—making this the largest Ebola outbreak on record.

American health officials say they’re more than able to handle any Ebola cases that make it into the States. Monkeys actually brought Ebola strains into the nation before, back in 1989, 1990, and 1996, but the infected animals were contained, and an outbreak was prevented. A similar disease, hemorrhagic Lassa fever, has been recorded in America seven times in the past few years (including a case in 2014), but failed to spread, thanks to efficient containment, aggressive treatment, and local norms on hospitalization and sanitation.

What American officials have yet to address though is the issue of bush meat. As early as March 28th, the government of Guinea banned the common practice of eating boiled, smoked, or stewed bat meat, as well as rats and monkeys, all of which are potential Ebola carriers. Even handling the raw meat, they say, can be dangerous—a view affirmed by warnings from the UNFAO in late July. That seemed like a local, African concern, given that these meats are culled from local forests to match local tastes; there’s little demand for bat in American supermarkets. But recent reports in the British media suggest that up to 16.8 million pounds of bush meat finds its way into the U.K. every year via unsanitary smuggling conditions, largely smoked or dried and then sold under the table to immigrants for a taste of home. Over 600,000 pounds were seized in 2010 at France’s Charles de Gaulle airport alone. Retailing at about $15.50 per pound, it’s cheap enough and common enough to realistically become an avenue for the spread of Ebola within the country.

In 2009, investigations in the U.S. found a similarly thriving black market for bush meat. Reporters identified distribution points in Queens, NY, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis, MN. One even reported seeing stacks of cane rat, an animal found throughout Africa, including Guinea, that can fetch as much as $20 per pound in Queens. At the time, the CDC expressed serious concern that a large-scale bush meat market could lead to the spread of diseases, including Ebola, in America.

Presently, America’s bush meat market isn’t an immense cause for panic. But at present it also hasn’t entered much of the conversation surrounding Ebola in America. The public doesn’t yet know whether the virus can survive in bush meat transported to America, whether there is valid concern for a local bush meat-originating outbreak, or whether there’s been increased efforts amongst American law enforcement agencies to shut down these markets and step up vigilance at border points.

In countries like Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, one of the greatest challenges to containment, besides the disease’s ability to hide and the remoteness of the outbreak, has been widespread mistrust of health officials, including rumors that whites and doctors are spreading the disease. By late July, this had led to violent reactions against health officials and active attempts to prevent caregivers from entering villages. American attempts at curbing the virus have included communicating with members of the diaspora about Ebola, urging them to contact their families back home to inform them about the virus’ ties to sanitation and bush meat. Raising awareness of the hazards surrounding bush meat can help to stem the flow of dangerous foods in America, and make it more likely that bans on eating bush meat in Guinea and beyond will be successful. Talking openly to those who will listen seems like our best bid for containment, both of bush meat, and of Ebola.

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