June 12th, 2008
09:16 AM ET

Animal viruses and humans

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Chief Medical Correspondent


Dr. Sanjay Gupta at a chimpanzee sanctuary in Cameroon.

This week, I am in Cameroon investigating a piece for the CNN documentary “Planet in Peril.” I am writing this from a small village called Nyabissan. Don’t bother trying to find it on a map. It is in the heart of the jungle and one of the more remote places I have ever been. (Editor's note: the path to Nyabissan was not very forgiving. Dr. Gupta explains HERE)

In fact, you are reading this blog because Neil Hallsworth, our camera man, was able to point a small, portable satellite dish in the sky and get a signal and then send this piece along with some of the video we shot back to Atlanta.

We picked this place because it is a hot spot in the world of viruses. It turns out there is a constant exchange of viruses here between animals and humans. There is a very cozy relationship here between humans and animals, such as rodents, snakes, mammals and other primates.

Just today, we passed two men who had killed an enormous viper, another hunter with a pangolin (also known as a scaly anteater) and two young kids with two dead monkeys. While this “Bush Meat” represents a necessary part of the diet, it can sometimes be a problem.

In fact, if you look at some of the deadliest viruses and other pathogens that have ever plagued mankind, they have come from animals, and many of them from this part of Africa. Somewhere in the hunting, slaughtering and eating of these animals, a pathogen makes a leap.

Most times it is inconsequential, but in a few rare cases it results in disaster. Think about Marburg, ebola, malaria and HIV, not to mention many of the influenza viruses. One of the mandates for the “virus hunters” we’re traveling with (Dr. Nathan Wolfe, Mat Lebreton and Karen Saylors, all with the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative) is to try and stop that exchange of pathogens, and in the process stop the next potential pandemic.

Next, I will share my experiences going out into the bush and looking at the practice of safe hunting. As I sit here in the jungle, I am wondering if you think we’re doing enough to monitor and stop emerging diseases around the world.

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. kent fitzsimmons,Kewanee, Illinois

    In the remote jungles and rainforests there are so many undiscovered diseases and viruses. But, there are also many cures we have yet to find. Be careful everyone...........................

    June 12, 2008 at 13:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. CaseyJPS - California

    WOW. This is truly fascinating. Quite frankly, I had forgotten about the HIV connection, etc. I'm eager to learn and look forward to the upcoming report(s). Thank you for including this as part of Planet in Peril.

    June 12, 2008 at 15:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Cherisa

    Inspite of our advances in knowledge and prevention, it seems there's always some new challenge. I read about a recent study in Uganda reporting that mosquitoes are becoming resistant to particular insecticides on mosquito nets.

    I hope there are some positive reports in PIP2.

    June 12, 2008 at 19:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Kristen- Philadelphia, PA

    Sanjay, you and Anderson do us all a great service with your fascinating reporting. I am truly looking forward to this next installment of Planet in Peril. This is such an important topic that never hits the news until it’s too late. Kudos to you and the rest of your team.

    I am sure that everyone with you is being careful but how do you protect yourself from virus you don’t know exist yet? The “virus hunters” you travel with, how do they know what to look for, are they only looking for sick animals? Maybe this will be covered in the series, I’ll just be patient. Yall have a safe trip.

    June 12, 2008 at 21:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. kevin

    interesting post. I was a peace corps volunteer in Ebolowa, Cameroon (8 hours drive north of that village...on a good day) and was able to visit the pcv that lived there at the time. Bush meat is very common there and I ate the bushmeat (viper is really really good) au village simply because there is nothing else to eat protein wise. As long as the meat is cooked well done (which they will gladly do if you ask), it is safe to eat. It also doesn't hurt to bring some anti-bacterial soap.

    I know this may sound snobbish, but please respect those villagers and realize you are guests in their home and their not simply a science experience. Enjoy their hospitality, engage them in conversation, meet the Chef du Village, and heck, drink a Castel. Cameroon will always be a very important part of my life and there's more to that place than just bush meat. Perhaps if we helped them with their roads (or lack of), there would be less desire to hunt meat and more possibilities of other work. Just a thought.

    June 18, 2008 at 01:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Dr. John T. Banser

    The subject is as fascinating as it is important . However,this "frontier explorer" type article is prone to generalizations that could be very misleading.
    To begin with the area of the study is described as being "in the heart of the jungle and one of he most remote places I've ever seen."* This doesn't help the reader in locating the study. The usual thing is to say how far away it is South, North, East, or West of the
    Capital city, not to locate in simply in the romantic jungle.
    The reason for the choice of that particular site is not very refined either:*"We picked this place because it is a hot spot in the world of viruses. It turns out there is a constant exchange of viruses here between animals and humans. There is a very cozy relationship here between humans and animals, such as rodents, snakes, mammals and other primates."*
    What defines a hot spot in the world of viruses and where is the proof that Nyabissan is indeed such a spot?

    There is nothing to suppot the sweeping statement about the alleged constant exchange of viruses between animals and humans so much so that the relationship is termed" cozy".Coming across some hunters in the course of the day, which in itself seems exagerated, is not enough to underly such a generous assertion.*"Somewhere in the hunting, slaughtering and eating of these animals, a pathogen makes a leap.to infect man" It is totally misleading to inssinuate that "Marburg, ebola, malaria and HIV, not to mention many of the influenza viruses" are all infective by simple contact. One wonders whether the *"virus hunters"* nominally mentioned in this study group subscribe to this oversimplification of a complex problem of nature and nurture. Apparently their role in the team is to "* try and stop that exchange of pathogens, and in the process stop the next potential pandemic." *

    How we wish it is all that easy !
    In 1974, I did undertake Arboviral sero-epidemiologic studies in human populations in some other parts of Cameroon in partial fulfillment of an MPH degree in Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases from the School of Public Health of Yale University College of Medicine.
    Considering the study to be just a scratch on the surface , I recommended similar studies in the animal populations as the next step to determining the extent of the problem and its impact on the health of the affected populations. I am sorry therefore that based on this brief article by the CNN group one would be excused from regarding the study as being more journalistic, if not folkloric , than scientific The environmental health problems in general and zoonoses in particular are enormous in this ecosystem and demand structured scientific investigations.
    Dr. John T. Banser, DVM (Cornell), MPH(Yale).
    Retired Diretor of Veterinary Research in the Ministry of Scientific Research, Cameroon.

    September 9, 2008 at 10:03 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.