Bush meat – which is the meat of squirrel, deer, fruit bats, rats, has long been a key source of (luxury) protein for many Ghanaians.
This was right after restrictions were lifted on the consumption of wild animals that could spread the virus.
Many Ghanaians expressed joy that they can now enjoy the meat they have always relied on for protein.
Bush meat – which is the meat of squirrel, deer, fruit bats, rats, has long been a key source of (luxury) protein for many Ghanaians, particularly, those in the rural areas. However, there is increasing evidence of the danger of bush meat to humans caused by handling and cooking certain kinds of wild animals.
One might think that the fear of the unknown might compel citizens to be careful about their consumption and handling of bush meat, but this has not been the case. A visit to the market centres, particularly in Kumasi, shows how citizens continue to pay premium prices for the meat. Vendors openly display the stiffened meat on their wooden tables – bat wings, fruit bats, and others all competed for space on the tables with other meat.
The cramped and often unsanitary conditions, in which bushmeat is handled along with improper cooking, may have dire consequences for one’s health, health experts say.
Though bush meat has not officially been linked to West Africa’s recent Ebola outbreak, hunting, butchering, and processing meat from infected animals could lead to other future disease outbreaks.
Ebola, the deadly virus, is no more a global threat, but there are fears that the disease might return, alongside other zoonotic diseases including Black Death, Spanish flu, and HIV pandemics.
In spite of popular belief, bushmeat consumption and public health are linked. There is no denying the fact that hunters and preparers of bushmeat are among the most at risk. Health experts argue that a preparer’s contact with the relatively fresh blood or bodily fluids of the animal puts them at risk of getting zoonotic diseases.
Diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans, such as bird flu and tuberculosis, are zoonotic diseases.
Researchers have found that 13 so-called zoonoses are responsible for 2.2 million human deaths every year.
The study, dubbed "Mapping of Poverty and Likely Zoonoses Hotspots," shows the vast majority of these illnesses and deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.
Countries like Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania, along with India, had the highest rates of associated illness and death.
About 60 percent of all human diseases and 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, the researchers indicated.
Most human infections with zoonoses come from livestock, including pigs, chickens, cattle, goats, sheep and camels.
“Animals like bats, rats, mice, carry diseases like Ebola,” Professor Daniel Attuquayefio, a zoologist at the Department of Animal Biology and Conservation Science at the University of Ghana told Pulse.com.gh.
For hunters, scratches or contact with faeces of bats, infected primates, and other wild animals might pose serious health risks. Zoologists argue that most bushmeat is more likely to give one garden-variety food poisoning. For instance, grasscutter is known to carry about 40 zoonotic pathogens, including parasites, bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
The World Health Organization (WHO), in 2015, published a list of the top emerging diseases that are likely to cause severe outbreaks in the near future.
It is not surprising that all the diseases on the list are zoonotic diseases caused by RNA viruses, which mostly use wild animals as reservoirs to hide in.
Many believe that the health risk would be reduced if people stopped harvesting bush meat. But how realistic would this solution be if many Ghanaians depend on bushmeat sales for their income, and a source of affordable alternate protein.
So what should be done?
The problem should be addressed in an interdisciplinary and holistic manner, researcher Björn Schulte-Herbrüggen and US colleagues from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania have said.
According to the researchers, communities could hunt for smaller bodied mammals while restricting hunting of primates, as many diseases originate from them. They emphasise that any intervention should involve community leaders and public outreach to reduce the risk of alienating communities.
“Campaigns should not rely on the threat of infection to change behaviour, but rather use community leaders to change cultural norms associated with hunting and educate people involved in butchering about best practices of how to protect themselves,” the researchers said.
Prof Attuquayefio from the University of Ghana told Pulse.com.gh that the way preparers handle bushmeat is the problem.
“The way they get the animals themselves, some people use poisons so they can poison the animal and kill it. So if you don’t cook it well, it means you are consuming the poison used. Secondly, when they prepare it in Accra, they burn it using tyres...all kinds of chemicals in the tyres, and they can cause cancers and so on. So preparation is the problem...The important thing is to get it right from the source,” he said.
What is more, before eating bush meat, you need to cook it thoroughly. Health experts say five minutes of boiling kills the vast majority of pathogens found in food.
Touching on that, Prof Attuquayefio said: “If you overcook something, especially if it’s protein, it means you are killing its potency in terms of nutrients so it is not about bushmeat alone...it is about everything that is protein. So cooking bush meat, you have to cook it in a certain temperature. On the other hand, if you undercook it too, you end up not killing the bacteria in the food and that can cause problems for you.
“Bush meat is healthy, in fact if it is cooked well. If you cook it well, it means you may have killed most of the bacteria in it. So I would think rather that if you overcook it, it is better than if you undercook it.”
Ghana was lucky to have been saved from the Ebola outbreak, probably, due to how citizens cook their meat. That should not change!