Health hazards lurk in smuggled bushmeat

This chimpanzee head and hands from Nigeria were intercepted at JFK airport in 2008, and were probably destined to be sold as trophies on the black market, said Kristine Smith at the EcoHealth Alliance.

New Yorkers may be surprised to know what’s being trafficked into area airports.

A study released yesterday by the Wildlife Conservation Society found that wild animal meat illegally brought from Africa not only contains various pathogens, but also new viruses never before discovered — some of which may be dangerous to humans.

Airports monitor the transportation of bushmeat, the flesh of nonhuman primates, bats and rodents commonly hunted  in and smuggled from Africa.

The WCS, along with the Centers for Disease Control, studied bushmeat brought into U.S. airports 45 separate times between 2008 and 2010. The majority of the contraband was brought into JFK.

“New York City is the most common port of entry, for both legal and illegal products,”
” said Kristine Smith, associate director of Health and Policy at the EcoHealth Alliance, an organization that focuses on animal/human health issues and contributed to the study.

“Bushmeat in Africa has been known to carry several viruses that are fatal to humans,” she said.

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“A good percentage of it was raw, some of it bloody, even
items that were smoked were raw on the inside.”

Upon examining the meat, Smith found evidence of a retrovirus related to HIV/AIDS.

“We know [it] can infect humans,” Smith said. “It’s like HIV; you may get it and not know for decades until you get sick.”

Smith also said new species of herpes were discovered in the meat.

“We have found several that we haven’t seen before. They may not pose a risk to humans, but it’s hard to say,” Smith said, adding that she hopes the study will result in more vigilance and security at airports.

TSA workers worried

Transportation Security Administration agents, who usually uncover the meat in passengers’ suitcases, say they are deeply concerned they are being exposed to dangerous viruses.

“It’s very concerning that viruses are coming through,” said Milly Rodriguez, a health and safety specialist for the union that represents TSA workers across the country. “I don’t believe they’re being as protective as possible, especially at areas with a lot of international travelers.”

Why bushmeat?

Nina Marano, chief of the CDC’s quarantine branch, said that people bring bushmeat into the country for many reasons.
   
“It’s a delicacy in West African countries,” Marano said. “They consider it to be safer to eat than processed meat. It’s usually reserved for celebrations like weddings and festive occasions.”
   
Bronx resident and Ghana native Seth Ofosu compared it to Americans hunting deer for venison meat.
  
Smith said people also bring over bushmeat to sell on the black market, or to use for religious purposes.

Follow Emily Anne Epstein on Twitter @EmilyatMetro


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