As the death toll from the world’s deadliest-ever Ebola outbreak surged past 600 in West Africa, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned West Africans to stay away from certain popular wildlife species that are thought to carry the disease.
“We are not suggesting that people stop hunting altogether, which isn’t realistic,” FAO’s chief veterinary officer Juan Lubroth said in a release on Monday. “But communities need clear advice on the need not to touch dead animals or to sell or eat the meat of any animal that they find already dead. They should also avoid hunting animals that are sick or behaving strangely, as this is another red flag.”
Fruit bats are among the most notorious for spreading disease, according to the FAO. The U.N. organization said West Africa’s current epidemic, which has so far killed at least 604 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, was probably first transferred from an infected animal, and then began spreading between people. Ebola is transferred by direct contact with the blood or body of infected people or animals.
Fruit bats are often eaten dried, or as part of a soup in West Africa. Unlike other animals, they may show no signs of having been infected with Ebola, so the U.N. recommends that they be avoided altogether.
Several African governments have tried to ban the sales of bat and other meats because of their potential to carry disease, but medical pronouncements and medical professionals are often greeted with suspicion in rural parts of West Africa.
“There is a lot of mistrust to the extent that people are hiding patients rather than getting medical help, and it’s very difficult to control the disease in the midst of many myths and rumors,” said Katinka de Balogh, FAO’s veterinary public health officer.
In one past outbreak, Ebola, which can cause organ failure and internal bleeding, had a case fatality rate of 90 percent.