Food Safety Defense Against Ebola Virus Disease

The Ebola Virus Disease blitzkrieg that had swept through Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone reached Nigeria 4 weeks ago and is poised to be one of the most menacing public health challenges we have seen in this country in recent times.

It is well known that the main route of transmission and spread of the Ebola Virus Disease is human to human contact particularly direct contact with blood, bodily fluids, and tissues of infected people or corpse of infected persons.

However eating food, in the form of animals particularly wild animals also known as bush meat that are infected can also result in EVD infection. As a matter of fact the risk of human infection from infected animals isn’t just limited to the consumption of infected animals but the risk also lies in preparation of the animal for food i.e butchering, cutting, washing etc humans can also become infected from blood and fluids from infected bushmeat.

Some of our people may argue that bushmeat is not the first choice delicacy in this country in terms of overall popularity, nevertheless the fact that some folks do love to eat bushmeat highlights that food safety practices have a role to play in preventing the spread of this disease.

The WHO (World Health Organization) information note on Ebola and Food Safety released on 24th of August points out the role of food safety in the fight against ebola by stating that if food products are properly prepared and cooked, humans cannot become infected by consuming them: the Ebola virus is inactivated through cooking.

The information note mentioned that basic hygiene measures can prevent infection in people in direct contact with infected animals or with raw meat and by-products. Such measures include regular hand washing and changing of clothes and boots before and after touching these animals and their products. However, sick and diseased animal should never be consumed.

Propagating food hygiene, personal hygiene, and food safety behaviors amongst the populace thus will give additional help in prevent the spread of EVD in Nigeria.

“Germs No Dey Kill Africans”

I once had a chat with a lady who works as a kitchen staff in an hotel here in Eket. In the course of our discussion about food safety practices & food-borne illness she told me, with a wide grin on her mouth, “oga, germs no dey kill Africans” (literally translated “boss, germs do not kill Africans”). I shot back at her “germs no dey do wetin?” (“germs do not do what?”), she replied with certitude “e no dey kill Africans now” (“it doesn’t kill Africans”). O dear, I thought…where did she get this hypothesis from? In my mind I couldn’t help thinking that observing proper food safety practices when preparing meals for customers would be the least of her worries if she really believes that germs don’t kill Africans. So I asked her if she had ever seen or heard of folks who fall ill or die as a result of eating contaminated food. She replied curtly “dat one fit happen…if dem put something for food for the person” (“it’s possible…if the food is poisoned by someone of malicious intent”). As far as she was concerned, food-borne illness can only occur where food is deliberately contaminated or poisoned. The opinion of this individual is actually an exception and not the rule, I haven’t come across anyone with such thoughts before and after my encounter with her. Nevertheless this false conception that the African race is immune to germs gave me a cause of concern, especially that it was coming from a food handler who ought to have been trained in basic food safety, and demonstrated how much work still needs to be done in educating the public about the danger of food-borne illness and as a matter of fact, other communicable diseases.

FIPI Conducts Food-Borne Illness Survey

Some months ago the Food-Borne Illness Prevention Initiative conducted a survey on food-borne illness risk perception and awareness at Ikot-Usekong, a semi-urban community in Eket LGA, using a mixture of face-to-face administered and self-administered questionnaires. Participants were selected using a non-probability convenience sampling strategy.

Findings from the survey showed that majority of the participants have a high risk perception of food-borne illness. It also emerged that most participants simply rely on cleanliness and good sanitation as the sole means of preventing food-borne illness. There seemed to be little or no knowledge about other food safety practices like separation of raw foods and ready-to-eat foods to prevent cross contamination, temperature control of food during storage, cooking food at right temperature and time to destroy pathogenic microflora, and so on and so forth.

What this implies is that a false sense of being secured from food-borne illness is assumed by the participants simply by maintaining good sanitation and cleanliness whereas as good as this practice is, in itself alone its unable to completely prevent food-borne illness from occurring.

This finding is consistent with similar social research work conducted in other parts of the country recently by other independent researchers using different research tools.

Below are photographs of FIPI volunteers administering questionnaires to participants.