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Caution: You Are What You Eat

More than one-fifth of the monkey meat sold in the markets of Cameroon is infected with SIV, the ancestor of HIV, according to the first major survey of bushmeat. The level and variety of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) strains researchers found reveals the risk that new HIV-like viruses may enter humans who eat this bushmeat.

?It happened before, so why shouldn?t it happen again?? says Martine Peeters, a virologist at the Research Institute for Development in Montpellier, France who led the research team. She suspects the situation in Cameroon is typical of tropical Africa.The traditional bushmeat trade has boomed as roads have penetrated the jungles. Urban growth has increased demand for rare delicacies such as monkey meat, bringing more people into contact with SIV. ?The risk now is much higher than 40 or 50 years ago,? says Peeters.

Peeters? team screened blood samples from 16 species of monkeys and apes that were sold in meat markets and kept as pets. Their results confirm that ?there are a lot of things out there carrying viruses just like HIV,? according to Edward Holmes, of Oxford University.

The researchers found 21 types of SIV, and four of them were unknown to science. This is especially worrying, since the more strains a person is exposed to, the greater the chance of infection, says Holmes.

Two distantly related strains of SIV have already jumped into humans. The two types of HIV, HIV-1 and HIV-2, originated in chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys. ?Viruses jump the species barrier all the time,? says Holmes.

Peeters is trying to observe this transmission in action. Her team members are sequencing the genomes of all the SIV strains they collect so they can develop tests for the viruses. They will then screen people who prepare or eat bushmeat to see which strains they are carrying. Says Holmes, ?It could be possible to predict what might jump in [the] future.?

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Eating flying foxes which have eaten palm seeds may be the reason why a small group of Pacific Island people were once effected by a terrifying mental illness, according to New York neurologist Oliver Sacks. The disease may have declined because the fruit bats on Guam died out and the imported Samoan flying foxes do not eat palm seeds.

The indigenous Chamorro people of Guam have at times been devastated by lytico-bodig, an extremely rare mental disease which leaves people seemingly conscious and awake, but completely vacant and ?zombie-like.? There is no cure. It has also been recorded in a part of Japan and Papua New Guinea and is known as ?amyotrophic lateral sclerosis/parkinsonism-dementia? (ALS-PDS).

Sacks and Dr Paul Cox of Hawaii?s National Tropical Botanical Garden were puzzled by the high incidence of ALS-PDC in Guam. It was confined to the Chamorro people and it climaxed in the 1940s when it was the main cause of adult death. Today it only occurs in older adults and rarely in anyone born after 1960. There is no genetic link to the disease, and no infectious origin for it.

Researchers suspected the seeds of the cycad tree but the Chamorro knew they were toxic and only ate the seeds in a flour form from which they washed out the toxins. ?We suggest that the Chamorro ... ingested large quantities of cycad toxins indirectly by eating flying foxes,? Sacks and Cox say.

They were eaten in ceremonial occasions and their consumption was a big part of Chamorro rituals, particularly in the villages of Umatac and Inarajan, which have the highest incidences of the disease.

The authors found that flying foxes sometimes consume up to two and a half times their body weight per night in fruit and nectar, and that they were particularly fond of cycad seeds. Eating the bats became highly popular and by the late 1970s the species had been hunted to near extinction.

When there were no more native flying fox bats available, around 18,000 flying foxes were imported from Samoa. ?Because there are no indigenous cycads in Samoa and many other bat-exporting islands, flying foxes imported from such places would not contain any cycad toxins. Thus the Chamorro people were no longer exposed to this putative source of cycad toxins. The decline of ALS-PDC among the Chamorro mirrors the decline of flying foxes in Guam,? say the researchers.

The Pacific Daily News in Guam reports that the Chamorro still occasionally eat flying foxes. University of Guam expert Ulla-Katrina Craig says, ?People should not be unduly frightened if they have eaten fruit bat.?

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