The United States is one of the world’s largest consumers of imported wildlife and wildlife products. There are an estimated 120 million live wild animals legally imported every year, plus many more illegally imported and non live animals (often bushmeat). With them, they carry the potential to infect humans with zoonotic diseases, or diseases that make the species jump from animal to human host. Because the U.S. currently lacks a method of tracking the pathogens carried by the imported animals, one research team recently completed a pilot project that aimed to do just that.
The researchers, including those from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the CDC, and Columbia University, tested meat samples that were confiscated from international arrivals at five American airports (New York’s JFK Airport, Philadelphia, Washington Dulles, George Bush Intercontinental-Houston and Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International). They first identified the species before testing for a variety of different known viruses, including anthrax, herpesviruses, coronaviruses, and paramyxoviruses, among others.
Results showed bushmeat samples from several non-human primates and rodents, many of which were from western Africa. Among the findings, some samples from the non-human primates tested positive for Simian Foamy Virus while others carried different varieties of herpesviruses. The presence of Simian Foamy Virus is significant because it is a known zoonotic disease, often transmitted to zookeepers, or those who work with non-human primates. To date, there are no known symptoms or adverse health affects of SFV and the virus cannot be transmitted person to person. Because there is documentation of increased pathogenicity after cross species transmission, SFV is still of concern to health officials.
The herpesviruses and lymphocryptoviruses found in the samples are typically asymptomatic in their hosts, meaning that those infected do not show symptoms. Further, the herpesviruses and lymphocryptoviruses found in the non-human primate samples do not typically infect humans.
What is important, however, is not that these viruses are not typically transmitted to and transmittable among humans, rather, that several viruses are traveling across borders, sometimes illegally, and that the sufficient surveillance to prevent serious harm may not be in place.
Because of the nature of the study, researchers cautioned that they only proved the presence of these viruses in imported meat and cannot make any guesses at prevalence. There is a need for more research and better surveillance of confiscated as well as legally imported animal products and live animals in order to protect human health and prevent outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases.
written by Jane Huston & Anna Tomasulo