Deforestation and viral outbreaks

  • …here is how Ghana is turning the tide

Imagine if we could go even further in time to witness the first time HIV entered our species when a hunter hacked into the freshly slaughtered chimpanzee’s flesh. Children playing nearby a tree in the Guinean town of Meliandou may have caught and eaten a small Angolan free-tailed bat, eating the Ebola virus that would cause a devastating epidemic.

Around 1.5 million unknown viruses are thought to exist. Many of those, though not all, can infect people. And while not all of those will start the next epidemic, many of them might. It is puzzling to imagine and predict other pandemics that may follow after the dust settles on COVID 19, even as it continues to claim lives and wreak havoc on businesses and economies throughout the world.

According to Senior Research Fellow and Viral Enzymology Expert at the West Africa Centre for Cell biology of infectious pathogens, University of Ghana, Dr. Peter Kojo Quashie, “What we can predict is, it is going to happen more and more frequently, but we can’t predict when it will happen because pandemics are somewhat chance events,” he said.

Trees will undoubtedly play a key role in slowing the speed at which these viruses will spread by preserving biodiversity and providing a habitat for billions of animals. Despite this, deforestation—the systematic removal of trees—continues, abandoning the long-term advantages of standing trees for the sake of short-term gain.

Deforestation in Ghana is exacerbated by timber harvesting, wildfires, mining, and increased demand for fuel wood. Deforestation isn’t always carried out on purpose. Some of it is the result of a mix of human and environmental events, such as wildfires and overgrazing, which can stunt the growth of young trees.

According to statistics collated by the GLOBAL FOREST WATCH, Ghana had 7 million hectares of natural forest in 2010, it however, lost 136,000 hectares of this natural forest in 2020.

The downside

Humans are increasing the likelihood of disease pandemics like COVID-19 by reducing biodiversity by chopping down forests and developing more infrastructure.

“What goes hand in hand with deforestation is urban expansion so as you are getting close to previously where wild animals live then it only means you will have more human-animal contact. There could also be the transmission of viruses from wild animals to pets that may be zoonotic,” says Dr Peter Quashie, a virologist at the West Africa Centre for Cell biology of infectious pathogens at the University of Ghana.

Dr. Quashie stressed that it is increasingly possible that we will experience epidemics of infectious diseases as a result of the degradation and clearing of forest habitats.

When might the subsequent pandemic strike

Ghana on July 7, reported the initial discovery of two instances of the Marburg virus disease, which, if confirmed, would be the first such infection ever discovered in the nation. The highly contagious Marburg virus first discovered in African green monkeys from Uganda belongs to the same family as the more well-known Ebola virus illness.

The Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research in the nation discovered samples obtained from two patients to be positive for Marburg. The samples have still been sent to the Institute Pasteur in Senegal, a WHO Collaborating Center, as per regular protocol, for verification.

In 2017, in the most recent outbreak in Uganda, there were three cases, all of whom died. A previous outbreak in 2005 in Angola resulted in over 200 infections, 90 percent of whom died. As more research is being done, quick preparations are being made for a potential outbreak reaction.

As of June 8, 2022, the Ghana health service reported 12 suspected cases of monkeypox. The last confirmed monkeypox outbreak in Ghana was reported in 2003. First identified in 1958 in Copenhagen, monkeypox has spread from Central and West Africa to North America and other European nations including the UK due to international travel and pet trafficking, but all subsequent outbreaks have so far been contained.

About 6 percent of the 300 people who contracted monkeypox during the Nigerian outbreak between 2017 and 2019 perished. Over 5,000 people may have also contracted it in DRC.  Amidst these outbreaks, Dr. Peter Quashie indicated that due to the unpredictable nature of pandemics, it is hard to forecast when they will strike next. “Because pandemics frequently start when a pathogen spreads from an animal in which it lives to a human who has never had that infection before, they can start any place on the planet where animals and people coexist nearby,” he said.

A far worse problem

Regional Manager of the Forestry Commission in Ghana, Benjamin Torgbor says Ghana’s deforestation rate is on the decline. “Before 2016, somewhere in 2012, our deforestation rate was at 1.2 percent and in 2016 it shot up to about 3.4 percent and started dropping somewhere around 2020, as 2021 we had a rate of 1.5 percent so we can see a decline compared to previous years,” he indicated.

Despite the decline, Benjamin Torgbor explained that our forests are being degraded. “A degraded forest is still there, but it can no longer function properly. It degenerates into a shell of what it once was, and its health deteriorates to the point where it can no longer support people and wildlife.”

Deforestation is a concern, but forest degradation is far worse in terms of land mass. The main causes of forest degradation are a few. One is climate change, which makes forest fires, pest infestations, and disease more likely and severe as a result of rising temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns. But unsustainable and illegal logging seems to be the main reason for forest degradation in Ghana.

Promoting afforestation, agroforestry and preserving wildlife

When people find themselves around certain resources, they tend to build their livelihoods around them. In this case, the forest reserves are sources of livelihood for several people, but will putting a stop to them resolve the exploitation?

The Forestry Commission manager, Benjamin Torgbor tells says the commission has engaged several young men centering their livelihoods on the forests in spearheading an initiative called the ‘Youth In Afforestation Project’.

According to him, the project has shifted the attention of these young men who otherwise may have engaged illegally in exploiting the forest reserve. Beyond these, the forestry commission works hand in hand with private sector institutions and NGOs where training is channeled at livelihood support activities such as snail rearing and farming.

Per the Wildlife Conservation Regulations, L.I. 685 of 1971, the Forestry Commission enforces what it refers to as the ‘Close Season’ from August 1, through December 1, each year. “During this period, it shall be illegal for anybody to hunt, capture or destroy any wild animal except grass cutter which can be done only under a license issued by the Wildlife Division of the Forestry Commission,” Benjamin Torgbor noted.

As part of a statewide initiative to preserve diminishing forest reserves, a big drive “Green Ghana” to plant millions of trees in Ghana kickstarted in June 2021.  That year 5 million trees were planted. Just this year, 2022, the exercise which has become an annual ritual aimed at planting 20 million trees.

Evidently, we are the solution to these emerging problems. Although the majority of these disease originate in wildlife, the cataclysm is frequently due to human activities. At previously unheard-of rates, people are destroying forests and killing, eating, and selling wild animals. The likelihood that viruses may find new populations to infect increases with each tree uprooted from its roots, increasing contact between people and wild animals.

>>>The writer is a journalist with almost eight years of journalism experience. He presently works with Pan African radio station, Asaase Radio as a broadcast journalist with exceptional skills in news casting and radio production. Caleb spends most of his time researching on subjects related to education, health, tech, human rights, the environment and climate change. Keep in touch with Caleb via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Muckrack (Caleb Ahinakwah)

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