Reports from West Africa all acknowledge that the likeliest source of the Ebola virus is by cross-over from animals, particularly fruit bats.
The disease does not seem to affect them, but they are undoubtedly carriers.
They are also prey to huntsmen across West Africa, a daily source of protein – regularly eaten in some areas, prized as a delicacy in others.
Known throughout the region as “bushmeat” – such traditional food includes illegally-hunted monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees and forest antelope – even snakes and porcupines – game meats that are known hosts to Ebola, anthrax, yellow fever and several other deadly diseases.
Nostalgic for home, bushmeat is equally popular with the half million or so West African immigrants living in UK, mostly in London. Traditional soups like egusi, efo and ofe isla rely on it, so does the spicy stew kedjenou.
Unlawful and unhealthy
But bushmeat is illegal – completely unregulated by any health or food safety laws – all 7,500 tons of it smuggled in annually from Abuja, Lagos, Monrovia and Freetown – feeder airports from where the Ebola epidemic currently rages.
Outside the law, the processing of bushmeat is murky at best. It is usually cooked or smoked before market, but techniques are primitive and often hasty. Raw or semi-raw meat is common, even here in UK.
In the open air market at Ridley Road in Dalston, East London, meats dripping blood are a regular sight. They have arrived in foul-smelling packages, bloody animal corpses sneaked through Heathrow by regular couriers.
Any one of them could carry Ebola, untraced and untraceable – until the three-week incubation period is up and suddenly symptoms of malaria or yellow fever appear. Another few days and it’s something worse.
The trade is unstoppable too – highly profitable, driven by big business and mostly underground. In Hackney or Brixton for instance, a single ape steak might cost as much as £20.
Out in Sierra Leone, British Army soldiers are hauling dead bodies, protected by full hazmat suits and chemical disinfectants. At Ridley Road, dead animals from the same area are butchered with bare hands.
It’s no longer if Ebola breaks out in Britain, it’s when.