Ebola slowed, sales of bush meat revive

But virologist warns of infection risk

In this file photo taken on Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014, Yaa Kyarewaa, await clients as she stands next to her makeshift bush meat shop at one of the largest local markets in Accra, Ghana.
In this file photo taken on Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014, Yaa Kyarewaa, await clients as she stands next to her makeshift bush meat shop at one of the largest local markets in Accra, Ghana.

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- As the deadly outbreak of Ebola has subsided, people in several West African countries are flocking to eat "bush meat" again after restrictions were lifted on the consumption of wild animals such as hedgehogs and cane rats. But at least one health expert called it a risky move.

Ivory Coast, which neighbors two of the three countries where Ebola has killed more than 11,300 people since December 2013, lifted its ban on wild animal meat this month.

The meat of squirrel, deer, fruit bats and rats has long been a key source of protein for many in the region, but it is also a potential source of the Ebola virus.

Though bush meat hasn't officially been linked to West Africa's recent Ebola outbreak, infections in Africa have been associated with hunting, butchering and processing meat from infected animals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Ebola virus is then spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of victims or corpses.

"From a public health standpoint, this decision is unfortunate at best," said Ben Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University-Texarkana. "The only source of Ebola in the world is infected animals, and there's good evidence that some of these animals, like bats, can be infected for a long time."

However, not all bush meat is equal, he said. Bats pass on the virus and travel far. Some types of rodents can get the virus. Primate meat is likely not as much of a danger, given that they succumb to Ebola more quickly than people do.

"There's a good case for banning the sale of bats as bush meat. The other sources are a lesser risk," Neuman said. "I don't want to see it all legal, but we don't want to see people go hungry, either."

Ivory Coast, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ghana all warned against, or banned, the sale of bush meat in 2014 as the outbreak emerged. They began rolling back those restrictions after the World Health Organization said in March that Ebola was no longer an international health emergency.

Many in the countries are happy that they can now enjoy the meat they have always relied on. Some believe it is tastier than imported meats or chicken, and it's often cheaper.

"We weren't happy that the government banned us from eating bush meat these past two years. But we did what we were told because of Ebola," said Lucien Douhan, who was shopping for the meat in the Yopougon suburb of Abidjan.

In the teeming open-air markets, vendors handled the stiffened meat in recognizable animal form. Bat wings competed for space on worn wooden tables with other meat, some with tails and claws still attached. Flies buzzed. A machete hacked.

Those who sell the meat say they have been through hard times.

"We couldn't afford for our kids to go to school. It was hard for us. We had to sell frogs so the kids could eat, and we sold snails, too," said Brigitte Gahie. "But today, thanks be to God, the meat is back and the people are coming back."

In Guinea, bush-meat sales are still illegal, said Mohamed Tall, the minister of livestock and animal production there. Despite the ban, people still consume it.

"We ate it before Ebola. We eat it after Ebola. Nothing can stop me from eating it," said Marcel Yombouno in Guinea.

Information for this article was contributed by Boubacar Diallo, Clarence Roy-Macaulay and Jonathan Paye-Layleh of The Associated Press.

A Section on 09/22/2016

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