By Paul Udoto
That Kenya is among 20 African countries ill-prepared to deal with an Ebola outbreak is a veritable wake-up call. According to the World Health Organisation, only Algeria and Ethiopia are fully prepared to deal with Ebola. Several African countries, including Kenya, have weak surveillance and health systems to cope with an Ebola outbreak.
The interaction between wild animals and humans has been linked to Ebola, yet it has been overlooked 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, this 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.
A recent report, Lifting the Siege: Securing Kenya's Wildlife, by the task force on wildlife security led by Ambassador Nehemiah Rotich, found that subsistence bush meat poaching has hit unprecedented levels. Commercial bush meat trade is now a lucrative multibillion-shilling industry.
For instance, the report indicates that in February, a car was found on the Narok-Mai Mahiu road with 6,000kg of bush meat. If sold at Sh200 a kilogramme, the meat will fetch Sh1.2 million.
It's estimated that in Tsavo, 3,000 animals are poached every year, yielding about 643,950kg of wet meat. Bush meat hotspot areas include Narok, Naivasha, Isiolo, Samburu, Machakos, Kitengela, Namanga and Coast.
The report says the problem is so serious that it is posing a challenge to conservation, and seriously affecting tourism in key national parks. Thus, residents of Nairobi and other major urban areas have reason to worry about the meat they eat.
Although bush meat has long been part of local consumption, the current state is no longer sustainable nor healthy. Even after the World Health Organisation declared the epidemic a "public health emergency of international concern", trade in bush meat is still thriving. The ever-sizzling meat joints on the Nakuru-Naivasha highway and meat dealers in major urban areas don't seem to care about the health risks, leave alone the devastating effects on tourism. Some communities in Western, which are also known to eat primates, are yet to take notice.
Ebola falls under the category of emerging zoonotic diseases, which are found in animals and are transferred to humans. Those who hunt, trade in or eat bush meat are vulnerable to infection.
Zoonotic diseases are caused by an array of bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites. Examples include bubonic plague, Sars and HIV. The worldwide increase in zoonotic diseases has been attributed to human settlement in areas where animal populations and parasites were previously isolated from humans, and increase in ownership of domesticated animals.
The Ebola outbreak should serve as a warning to bush meat consumers and handlers. Ebola has no cure or vaccine. In Africa, infection has been documented from handling infected chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines.
Zoonosis accounts for about 75 per cent of emerging human infectious diseases worldwide. Although the conversion of wildlife habitats to arable land 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 eating game meat, that is of concern.
Traditionally, most meat-borne diseases arise from poor handling and consumption of undercooked meat. Kenya's wildlife conservation policy doesn't encourage petting zoos or exposure of captive wild animals at circuses or zoos.
Thus, visitors to national parks and reserves as well as other wildlife conservancies are advised not to feed wild animals or visit with pets such as dogs or cats.
Ebola has no known cure and has 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 this horrific disease.
Of course, there are some positive aspects in Ebola transmission, for instance, it is not airborne like the flu and one can't get it from contaminated food or water.
The writer is the Kenya Wildlife Service corporate communications manager.