By Jing Jin and Caitlin Allmaier
According to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report, Ebola has claimed nearly 2300 lives across West Africa, marking the worst outbreak on record. While providing emergency food and health aid is necessary for managing the ongoing crisis, it is important to look forward and consider strategies for rebuilding affected communities. One key point of breakdown in understanding occurs at the juncture of cultural tradition and health education. Traditional burial practices, gender roles, and food consumption have all contributed to the severity of the current Ebola outbreak. As health professionals work on education and target behavioral change to reduce the risk of future Ebola outbreaks, there must be an understanding of existing social and cultural norms.
One cultural norm that has been pegged as a potential line of transmission for the current Ebola outbreak is the consumption of wild game, colloquially known as “bushmeat.” Bushmeat is a term that covers everything from caterpillars to elephant meat, and is a traditional and relatively abundant source of low-cost protein in many parts of Central and West Africa. Ebola is thought to originate with fruit bats, and can be spread to other animals via direct contact, including humans. The hunting, butchering, or eating of infected animals can result in infection.
Despite its cultural prominence, a number of countries have banned bushmeat in response to the most recent Ebola epidemic. While the consumption of bushmeat no doubt raises Ebola risk, attempting to prevent the spread of any disease through prohibition rather than increased and efficient regulation will be a temporary fix, at best. In rural parts of the Congo Basin, bushmeat can account for 30 to 80 percent of the population’s total protein intake, and this percentage rises with food security concerns.
Extreme food scarcity has been part of the fallout from the current Ebola crisis, and has pushed affected populations back to the bushmeat market even as health experts warn against it. Given a choice between starvation and the continuation of a normalized cultural practice like consuming bushmeat, most Africans find the choice clear. Anti-bushmeat education attempts to alter a longstanding element of African food culture, and has been broadly ineffective. In the absence of alternative sources of protein, a ban on bushmeat is unrealistic. Establishing bushmeat regulations and local poultry farming that are aligned with culturally appropriate and relevant traditions will not only help support reconstruction and stability in affected communities, but also fundamentally prevent future disease outbreak.
The spread of Ebola, and its entanglement with cultural practice, is not a unique case. Disease prevention professionals have long struggled to overcome cultural practices that increase health risk. Educational programs in prevention of HIV/AIDS continue to involve several cultural issues.
It can be a challenge to address these cultural barriers in an effective way, particularly in the midst of an urgent health crisis. The reality, however, is that health issues are closely tied to the socio-economic circumstance and cultural traditions of a given country. To address the threat of Ebola there must be recognition of the conditions which led to outbreak. As international experts and aid pour into West Africa, cultural sensitivity and perspective will be essential in constructing a strategy to control the spread of the epidemic virus.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia under a creative commons license.
Jing Jin is a researcher with the Global Food Security Project at CSIS.