Hunter and Community-Based Early Warning System Expands Ebola Mortality Monitoring in Great Apes

Courtesy of Elyssa Kellerman
Published: 22 April 2022
Last edited: 22 April 2022
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Summary

In northern Republic of Congo, hunters and community members were recruited to report morbidity and mortality events in wild animals. In the region, great ape die-off events were found to precede human cases of Ebola virus disease. Through the community engagement program, reporting channels were developed, relaying information from small villages to connector communities via radio, messages carried by commercial drivers or other contact routes with national authorities. This facilitated information flow to veterinarians so that diagnostic sampling could occur within the short timeframe needed before carcasses degrade. Reporting of events expanded the surveillance system to empower local people and allowed for early warning through sentinel surveillance for possible disease threats to humans and wild animals. Accompanying community outreach also helped to raise awareness about the dangers of hunting certain species or eating animals found sick or dead, particularly in epidemic periods, thereby promoting safer practices.

Classifications

Region
West and Central Africa
Scale of implementation
Local
Subnational
Ecosystem
Forest ecosystems
Tropical deciduous forest
Tropical evergreen forest
Theme
Food security
Health and human wellbeing
Local actors
Not listed
One Health
Outreach & communications
Species management
Species Conservation and One Health Interventions
Wildlife Health Surveillance (to capture biodiversity, health, disease, and pathogen surveillance)
Species Monitoring and Research
Species Disease Early warning systems
Risk communication, community engagement and behaviour change
Outbreak investigation and access to laboratory
One Health coordination mechanism
One Health
Animal health
Biodiversity-health nexus
Food systems
Health related aspects of socio-economic factors such as poverty, education, social security structures, digitalisation, financing systems, human capacity development 
Neglected tropical diseases, emerging infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, zoonoses, antimicrobial resistance
Wildlife trade and human-wildlife conflicts
Challenges
Conflicting uses / cumulative impacts
Lack of alternative income opportunities
Changes in socio-cultural context
Lack of food security
Lack of public and decision maker’s awareness
Sustainable development goals
SDG 2 – Zero hunger
SDG 3 – Good health and well-being
SDG 8 – Decent work and economic growth
SDG 12 – Responsible consumption and production
SDG 15 – Life on land
SDG 17 – Partnerships for the goals
Aichi targets
Target 1: Awareness of biodiversity increased
Target 12: Reducing risk of extinction
Target 14: Ecosystem services
Target 16: Access to and sharing benefits from genetic resources
Target 17: Biodiversity strategies and action plans
Target 19: Sharing information and knowledge
Target 20: Mobilizing resources from all sources
Sendai Framework
Target 1: Reduce global disaster mortality by 2030
Target 5: Increase the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies by 2020
Target 6: Enhance international cooperation to developing countries through adequate and sustainable support to complement their national actions for implementation of this Framework by 2030
Target 7: Increase the availability of and access to multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster risk information and assessments to the people by 2030
Business engagement approach
Direct engagement with associations

Location

Sangha, Republic of Congo

Challenges

Subsistence hunting provides a critical protein source for communities living in parts of Central Africa, and extractive industry concessions have resulted in increased access to forest areas. Given the endangered status of some animals in the region, hunting could be at odds with the goals of conservation. An opportunistic finding of a wild animal carcass was often viewed as good luck, reducing the physical effort needed for a hunt. Additionally, integration in modern healthcare systems was limited, partially due to the remote location. Suspicion and superstitions in the region also affected perceptions and practices. This program worked to engage communities and hunters in an early warning system, expanding animal mortality monitoring and creating awareness to reduce disease risk to humans and animals. To avoid inadvertently incentivizing hunting, no compensation was issued for reporting; instead, the importance of information from carcass reporting was emphasized in regard to community wellbeing.

Beneficiaries

  • Communities
  • Great apes
  • Human and animal health system

How do the building blocks interact?

Stakeholder engagement and participation was a crucial part of the early warning system. Event reporting by hunters provided ongoing monitoring information that would not otherwise be available, helping to make the early warning system robust and inclusive of multiple species for a true One Health approach. At the same time, having a formal system in place provided the technical infrastructure for field and laboratory investigation of mortality reports, with public and animal health action as needed. Awareness of the risks posed by sick and dead animals not only helped to protect individuals involved in hunting, but likely also increased broader community support in the case of needed management actions.

Impacts

In the early 2000s, Ebola virus was recognized as a major threat to health and survival of Central African great apes, with thousands of gorilla deaths associated with the virus. Ebola outbreaks were also being recorded in human populations, with reports of mortality in great apes preceding human cases. The opportunistic collection of carcasses by hunters, particularly during epidemic or epizootic periods, put their communities at heightened risk of infection. With government authorities responsible for health and wildlife, an Animal Mortality Monitoring Network was leveraged to enhance detection of Ebola virus via disease investigation of carcasses reported by hunters and community members. Engaging hunters helped reduce the practice of carcass collection for food or income and facilitated new information coming into the surveillance system for early warning for possible disease threats. Over the course of several years, dozens of carcasses were sampled. The relatively high participation of hunters – who generated the majority of reports – was a sign of trust built with this stakeholder group. In concert with ecological surveys and fecal sample screening, the program generated information to monitor and help reduce potential for spread among endangered great ape and human populations.

Story

The connections between Ebola virus, great apes, and humans made apparent to me the need for a holistic approach, and in a Washington Post interview the term “One Health” was borne out of a quote I gave that "Human or livestock or wildlife health can't be discussed in isolation anymore…There is just one health. And the solutions require everyone working together on all the different levels." The term has since gained traction globally, but at its core it reminds us that many stakeholders can play a role in improving health outcomes for humans, animals, and the environment. This program successfully demonstrated how a One Health approach could be put into practice in a local context, expanding the benefits of conservation programs to generate information also important for public health. The effective engagement of local stakeholders allowed for buy-in, while respecting the needs and values of the communities we were working with. As head of the Field Veterinary Program, it was also rewarding to work with colleagues and friends such as Dr. Alain Ondzie and Dr. Jean-Vivien Mombouli, seeing them grow in their roles and make such significant contributions to wildlife and human health.

Contributed by

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William B. Karesh IUCN SSC Wildlife Health Specialist Group, EcoHealth Alliance