Researchers have expanded understanding of the potential for exposure to and infection with zoonotic pathogens in the bushmeat trade.

Scientists believe that if they can help bushmeat traders and consumers keep themselves safe, perhaps their communities can also be protected.

The team at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine and Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, looked at the attitudes, practices, and zoonoses awareness of community members associated with the bushmeat trade in northern Uganda.

They interviewed 292 women in July 2017 who cook for their households and 180 self-identified hunters in July 2016 from 21 villages bordering Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda on bushmeat preferences, the opportunity for zoonotic pathogen transmission, and awareness of common wildlife-associated zoonoses.

Awareness doesn’t equal mitigation
Families and communities frequently rely on bushmeat for food security and basic income. In Uganda, the harvest of wildlife is illegal but bushmeat hunting is common. This has resulted in a covert market with person-to-person exchanges rather than legal open markets.

Depending on the wildlife species involved such as baboons, bats, hippopotamus or monkeys, hunting, preparing, and consuming bushmeat has the potential to spread diseases such as the Ebola virus or more widespread, and perhaps more economically damaging, bacterial infections caused by E. coli, Salmonella, Brucella or others.

Almost all respondents were aware there is a risk of disease spillover from wildlife to people. However, for hunters, this awareness does not appear to influence or motivate precautionary behaviors during the harvest of wildlife as virtually none of them reported taking precautions with financial gain the top motivation.

Both hunters and women who cook considered primates to be the most likely wildlife species to carry diseases humans can catch. Among common zoonotic pathogens, both groups believed that pathogens causing stomach ache or diarrhea and monkeypox can be transmitted by wildlife. Cooks considered domestic meat such as cow, pig, chicken, and goat safer than bushmeat species.

Neither women who cook nor hunters report frequent injury during cooking, butchering, or hunting, and few took precautions while handling bushmeat. One respondent described wearing plastic bags on his hands like gloves. A greater proportion of cooks reported taking precautions when preparing domestic meats compared to when working with bushmeat.

Intentional deception impacts informed choices
The survey, published in the journal PLOS ONE, was in cooperation with Makerere University and the private secretary in charge of veterinary affairs in the State House of Uganda.

It found most women who cook believe that hunters and dealers never or rarely disguise primate meat as another kind in the marketing process. However, the majority of hunters said they “usually” disguise primate meat as some other kind. A total of 95 percent of hunters report that dealers “usually” disguise this meat as some other kind.

This is potentially harmful because it impacts the ability of bushmeat consumers to make informed choices about their diets. If awareness that certain species carry more risk for zoonoses transmission than others translates to differences in precautionary practices in food preparation and handling, then consumers may be inadvertently exposing themselves and others consuming the meals to pathogens due to this misrepresentation.

“These findings raise concerns, as the ability of cooks to know and assess the risks of handling primate meat is subverted through the disguise of these species in the market. Expanding our knowledge of awareness, perceptions, and risks enables us to identify opportunities to mitigate infections and injury risk and promote safe handling practices,” said BreeAnna Dell, a study author.

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