BY PAUL UDOTO
The recent identification of Kenya as being among 20 countries in Africa which are ill-prepared to deal with Ebola outbreak and need to do more to avert potential deaths is a veritable wake-up call.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), only Algeria and Ethiopia in Africa are fully prepared to deal with Ebola in case it’s detected. Several countries on the continent, including Kenya, have been found to have weaknesses in surveillance and health systems to cope with an Ebola outbreak.
The interaction between wild animals and people humans has been linked to Ebola yet this connection seems to have been overlooked by the efforts to control Ebola in Kenya. Admittedly, the country has expended resources on international air travel control and surveillance, which is justified.
Without seeming to cause unwarranted hysteria or downplay ongoing anti-Ebola efforts, the current Ebola outbreak might just be the right moment for Kenya to focus on the public health risks posed by bush meat trade and consumption.
This is because human handling and consumption of bush meat has been cited as a major source of several zoonotic diseases in Africa.
For one to appreciate the magnitude of the problem, the reference can be a recent report Lifting the Siege: Securing Kenya’s Wildlife by the Ambassador Nehemiah Rotich-led Task Force on Wildlife Security. The task force found that subsistence bush meat poaching in Kenya has hit unprecedented levels, while the growing commercial bush meat trade is now a highly lucrative business, emerging as a multi-billion shilling industry’.
For instance in February, the report indicates that a vehicle was arrested on the Narok-Mai Mahiu road with 6,000 kilos of bush meat, which if sold at Sh200 per kilogram, amounts to Sh1.2 million.
Further, it’s estimated that in Tsavo alone, some 3000 animals are poached per year yielding about 643,950kg of wet meat. The bush meat hotspot areas include Narok, Naivasha, Isiolo, Samburu, Machakos, Kitengela, Namanga and at the Coast.
The report says that the problem is so serious that it is posing a challenge to conservation, and seriously affecting tourism in Kenya’s key national parks. Thus, residents of Nairobi and other major urban areas have reason to worry about the meat they consume.
Although bush meat has long been part of local consumption in many parts of Kenya, the current state is no longer sustainable nor healthy.
Therefore, it’s evidently ironical that even after the World Health Organisation declared the epidemic a “public health emergency of international concern” crafty bush meat merchants and their customers are still in thriving business. The ever-sizzling meat joints on Nakuru-Naivasha Highway and the meat dealers major urban areas don’t seem to care about the health risks, leave alone the devastating effects on tourism. Some communities in Western Kenya, which are also known to eat primates, are yet to take notice.
Ebola is the latest of the many recent epidemics and falls under the category of emerging zoonotic infectious diseases called zoonotics, which start in animal populations and jump to humans. Those who often hunt, trade in or eat bush meat are vulnerable to infection.
Zoonotic diseases are those which can be transmitted from animals to humans. They are caused by an array of bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites. Some examples include Bubonic Plague, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
The worldwide increase in incidence of zoonotic disease has been attributed to human settlement in areas where animal populations and parasites were previously isolated from humans and from the increase in ownership of domesticated animals.
Scientists have identified Ebola as one of the zoonotic diseases that infect both animals and human beings. This implies that prospects of campaigns against illegal bush meat trade and consumption have never seemed brighter. That might be the silver lining in the Ebola outbreak. The outbreak should serve as a warning shot to bush meat consumers and handlers in Kenya.
World Health Organisation has described the epidemic as one of the most challenging since the virus was first identified in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. No medicine or vaccine exists yet for Ebola, which is named after a small river in DRC.
In Africa, infection has been documented from handling infected chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines.
Zoonoses, which account for about 75 per cent of emerging human infectious diseases worldwide, pose a re-emerging threat to public health. With an ever-increasing inter-relationship between humans, livestock and wildlife species, the threat to human health will rise to unprecedented levels. Wildlife species contribute to the majority of emerging diseases; therefore, there is an urgent need to define control systems of zoonoses of wildlife origin but little information exists in the public realm.
Although the conversion of wildlife habitats into arable land for crops, livestock pastures and wildlife conservancies can be viewed as the biggest driver of emerging and re-emerging zoonotic diseases associated with wildlife species, it is the ever increasing wildlife-human-domestic animal interface, including the consumption of game meat that attracts recent concerns and challenges. Traditionally, most meat-borne disease outbreaks arise from improper food handling practices and consumption of undercooked meat.
Kenya’s wildlife conservation policy doesn’t encourage petting zoos or exposure to captive wild animals at circuses or zoos, which could be a source of zoonotic infections.
Thus, visitors to national parks and reserves as well as other wildlife areas are well advised to observe guidelines that prohibit feeding of wild animals and visiting wildlife areas with pets such as dogs or cats.
Ebola has no known cure with a fatality rate of up to 90 per cent. In the absence of effective treatment and vaccine, raising public awareness of the risk factors and taking preventive measures are key to containing the spread of the horrific disease.
Of course, the truth is that Ebola has many redeeming aspects, for instance, the fact that it is neither an airborne disease like flu nor can one get Ebola from contaminated food or water.
(The writer is the Kenya Wildlife Service Corporate Communications Manager).