Consumption of African monkey meat may be spreading new

Publicação: 13 de July de 2012

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Researchers believe the virus may be jumping from one species to another, and although it is too early to tell if the virus is a really dangerous to humans, there are reasons to be concerned

It is estimated that eighty percent of the meat consumed in Cameroon, on the west coast of Africa, is “hunted meat”. The favorite dishes in the country are gorilla, chimpanzee and monkey, because of their tender and juicy meat. It is believed that about 3,000 gorillas are illegally killed in southern Cameroon every year to meet this demand. The information was published by the British newspaper The Independent. The report warns that the habit can be harmful to health. Three-quarters of all new human viruses are known to originate from animals, and some scientists believe that humans are particularly susceptible to those that come from the monkeys. It is argued that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) originated from chimpanzees.

“Currently, the most accepted hypothesis by the scientific community to explain the emergence of HIV, is that it was due to the frequent contact between the blood of chimpanzees infected with a virus very similar to HIV – variants originated from SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus) – and wounds, generated by the hunting activities of hunters in the Central African forests”, explains Dr. Rúbia Medeiros. She is a researcher of Human and Molecular Biology of Microorganisms; Immunogenetics of autoimmune diseases and Evolutionary Immunogenetics at the Federal University Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). According to Dr. Medeiros, at the end of last century the commercial exploitation of monkey meat in Africa led to the spread of HIV throughout the world. “There is plenty of evidence supporting this hypothesis, but it is impossible to determine exactly how the jump occurred between the species”, she notes.

Viruses are often transferred from monkey to man through bites or contact with the blood of the dead monkey – when it enters an open wound. There is lower contamination risk from consumption of cooked primate meat, but they are not completely safe.

Dr. Medeiros also believes that despite the controversy this hypothesis raises an important public health issue: the hunting activity exposes humans to viruses that circulate within the forests. The Independent reports that although Cameroonians have been eating primate meat for years, recent disease outbreaks have begun to raise concerns about the safety of the meat. The newspaper reports an episode in the village of Bakaklion where residents found a dead gorilla in the forest which they took to the village and ate. They all died almost immediately.

“A month ago, researchers from Cameroon advised local residents of the Congo Basin not to eat monkey meat because they could be contaminated with a virus”, says the researcher. She says that scientists are monitoring the presence of a virus very similar to HIV called Human Foamy Virus (HFV), which originated from Simian Foamy Virus.“They do not know for sure what HFV may cause, but fear that the virus could spread, since this variant virus can infect humans,” she says.

According to Dr. Medeiros, researchers believe they are witnessing a jump of the virus between species, and although it is too soon to state that the virus is really dangerous to humans, the concern is relevant. “If you look at the amount of monkey meat consumed by the local population (Cameroonians) and the amount of meat that is clandestinely exported as a delicacy, the figures are really high”, says the expert, who points out that the higher the demand of game, the greater the exposure to unknown micro-organisms.

From a biological standpoint, says Dr. Medeiros, these new contacts are natural and must have occurred several times throughout human history. “As with HIV, the scale of this contact can determine the size of the risk to the population. On the other hand, from the social point of view, the problem is even more disturbing, since hunting activity is intrinsic to mankind and, surely, any attempt to prevent this activity would take too long to be effective”, she says. She also believes that currently, monitoring of hunting and health measures are vital for the health of the population.

“Nearly 30 years after the first discoveries about HIV/AIDS we have a lot to celebrate regarding the information that this virus has generated for the scientific community. It is up to us to apply such knowledge and try to prevent further harm to human health”, she acknowledges.

Apes are known to host other potentially deadly viruses such as Ebola, anthrax, yellow fever, and potentially deadly viruses that are yet to be discovered.