Smuggled Bushmeat Poses U.S. Health Threat

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In Africa, some people hunt wild animals for their meat. Some of this so-called bushmeat is smuggled into the United States. Health experts say that it sometimes contains microbes that cause serious diseases.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Then there's the question of whether Africa's health concerns are coming here. Once a week on average Customs officials discover an airplane passenger trying to bring meat from African wildlife into the United States.

NPR's Richard Knox reports health officials are worried what microbes might be in that meat.

RICHARD KNOX: Dr. Nina Marano of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Customs seized 50 packages of African bushmeat in a recent one-year period, and she's sure there's a lot more coming in. The meat they found came from a rodent called a cane rat, from monkeys and apes, from porcupines and bats.

Dr. NINA MARANO (Associate Director of Veterinary Public Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): We have evidence of products that have been pulled out where the meat is still raw, quite raw.

KNOX: Marano presented the data at a recent scientific meeting in Vienna. She says, most of the time, bushmeat smugglers don't know they're doing something illegal.

Dr. MARANO: They're U.S. residents who go home to visit friends and family in their countries of origin. And they miss a little bit of home, and they purchase something on the street and put it in their bag and try to bring it home.

KNOX: Other smugglers know what they're doing. Marano says many U.S. cities have illicit bushmeat markets. And she worries some bushmeat might contain microbes that cause disease, even monkeypox, deadly ebola or Marburg fever, maybe something completely unknown.

It's hard to know how big a health risk bushmeat represents. William Kahresh, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, says it's not negligible.

Mr. WILLIAM KARESH (Director, Field Veterinary Program, Wildlife Conservation Society): If you look over the last 25 years, we've had 20 or 30 new emerging diseases. HIV/AIDS has turned out to be a pretty bad emerging disease. It came from the handling of bushmeat.

KNOX: Karesh estimates Central Africans consume two billion pounds every year.

Mr. KARESH: Maybe that represents three or four or 500,000 individual animals every year being consumed in Africa, and each one is contacted by a hunter and a salesperson and a consumer. So every year there's a good chance that we could end up with some disease emerging.

KNOX: The CDC's Marano is trying to interest other federal agencies in a bigger study to figure out just how worried to be about bushmeat imports.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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