Headline July 21, 2014



Wolfe set up shop in Cameroon in 2000 with barely a word of French -the country is largely francophone  -to start what eventually became GVF.

He immediately put his persuasiveness to work.:

Lucky Gunasekra, who runs GFV's digital epidemiology program and met Wolfe at Stanford, where the virus hunter teaches,  -into putting medical school on hold and working for him instead.

The objective in Cameroon was simple enough: collect blood samples from bush-meat hunters and their prey and find out what microbes were out there. Hunters are what Wolfe calls sentinel population:

''It's amazing the kind of information you can get from a single drop of blood.''

The real challenge is getting that blood in the first place, especially in a desperately poor country; when the roads range from rough to impassable. GFV distributes filter paper to the villages throughout the country; when hunters make a kill-

 They squeeze a few drops of blood from the animal onto the paper, noting what they butchered, when and where.

"We're looking for unknown things,'' Wolfe says. "If you want to be able to forecast, you need to know what's out there." Every few months, GVF staffers collect the papers, which can preserve blood samples for months.

Wolfe has over 20,000 blood samples.

Screening those blood samples, Wolfe and his colleagues soon discovered new variants of a virus called HTLV.

Millions of people around the world are infected with the HTLV-1 strain, which can sometimes lead to adult T-cell leukemia, or HTLV-2, which may cause neurological diseases.

"If we are going to find the kind of new viruses that might trigger pandemics, we need to do the kind of work Nathan is doing," says Charles Chiu, a microbiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who collaborates with Wolfe. 

It didn't take long for the project to pay off. In 2004, Wolfe and his colleagues, found evidence that simian foamy virus (SFV) had spread to Cameroonian hunters.

But pandemic prevention isn't just challenging new pathogens; it's also about trying to contain them. And that goes back to the bush-meat hunters, the people coming into direct contact with wild animals and their blood.

Stop the bush-meat hunt and you might rob viruses of the chance to leap the species barrier. You'd also benefit conservation.

One of the leading threats to endangered animals, especially primates in Central Africa, is the bush-meat trade.  

It's not so simple to shut the ad hoc business down, though. Villagers in Cameroon and elsewhere in Central Africa aren't scouring the forest for prey because they want to, as anyone who's shadowed a hunter on an hours-long trek knows.

Bush meat is virtually the only source of protein available in the countryside, and as African cities have swelled, there's additional demand at the market from urbanites who crave a taste of  dik-dik  or monkey.

It's just so common to see the Cameroonians selling freshly killed bush meat along the roadsides.

''If we could snap our fingers and eliminate all contact with wild game, that would be great, but it's an impossibility,'' says Wolfe. ''This is an issue of rural poverty.''

That puts Wolfe and his colleagues in a tough spot. They know the bush-meat hunting is a danger to the entire planet. But desperately poor people need to eat.

Preventing pandemics, then, also means addressing the basic issue of development. That's a tall order, and Wolfe would like to see more aid focused on alternative sources of protein, like domestic animals, rarely seen in rural Cameroon.

In the meantime, GFV promotes what you might call safe hunting.

At a hamlet in southern Cameroon, Joseph Diffo, a local GVF staffer, gathers villagers for his healthy hunter talk. Using graphic pictures of sick and dead animals-

 Diffo explains the danger of infection that the blood of a primate might pose to a hunter and his family.

Central Africans already know plenty about the risk of disease. Ebola, which is transmitted by sick primates, is a real threat, not just the stuff of Hollywood out- break thrillers.

But safety doesn't always win out over hunger, and most hunters seem more concerned about stampeding elephants than novel viruses.

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