It's been a fascinating couple of days. I just got back to Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon. We've been in a small village deep in the forest about a six-hour drive from here.
We spent a long day with two hunters searching for food. They didn't find anything. The bush meat trade in central Africa has depleted forests significantly; it's harder and harder for people to find food, and that means they have to push deeper into the forest. The destruction of habitat and animal species, however, is only part of the story that brought us here.
I went into the forest following the hunters with Nathan Wolfe, an epidemiologist with UCLA. He searches some of the world's most remote regions for viruses that could become the next deadly pandemic. Wolfe and his team focus on Zoonotic diseases, caused by viruses jumping from animals to humans.
Some of the most well known Zoonotics are Malaria, Smallpox, West Nile, SARS, Ebola, Avian Influenza, and of course, HIV. But Wolfe and his team have discovered that viruses jump from animals to humans far more than previously realized.
It's so strange to walk in the forest in Cameroon. After all, scientists have now determined that it was in this country's forests that HIV was unleashed. I had always heard that HIV started in monkeys, but I hadn't known much about the way it was transmitted to humans.
It's now believed that it all started with a chimpanzee in Cameroon. The chimp was likely infected by eating smaller monkeys which carried forms of the virus. The chimp's blood likely came in contact with the hunter who killed it, or the person who prepared the dead chimp for cooking. Once it made the jump to humans, the virus likely existed in this region for decades, relatively isolated in small human populations.
As roads increased however, and air travel became more common, it spread to other countries. Though HIV didn't start making headlines in the United States and other parts of the world until the early 1980's, scientists know it was around for decades before that here in central Africa.
Nathan Wolfe does a lot of research and prevention work on HIV, but he and his team are really trying to set up an early warning system for other potentially deadly viruses. He informs hunters about the danger of coming in contact with the blood of wild animals, particularly primates, and has enlisted a network of hunters who collect blood specimens of the animals they kill. The blood is tested and they have already discovered new viruses that potentially put people at risk.
The work is incredibly tough. The living conditions in the forest are difficult, to say the least, and after spending the past two days with Wolfe and his team, I have the utmost respect for what they are trying to do.
In the coming days we're heading to investigate an outbreak of another sometimes deadly virus, called monkeypox. You may remember it showed up a couple years ago in the United States, when some people imported prairie dogs that carried the virus. In central Africa, however, monkeypox is a much more serious problem, and we are heading to the frontline in the fight against it.
We've also heard about another strange disease that is infecting people, and scientists aren't exactly sure what is causing it. Could it be a Zoonotic, a virus that has originally come from an animal? Or is it something else, something in the environment? We hope to find out in the days ahead.
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