- David Wolking
In certain areas along the Indian Ocean coast from Kenya to Malawi (and likely beyond), mice hunting, rat trapping, and rodent roasting can be pretty popular. Rodents are actually a common source of protein worldwide, even in Paris, where rats were eaten on a large scale during the Franco-Prussian War and reportedly taste like partridge and pork. There is even a recipe in Larouse Gastronomique for Entrecote à la bordelaise (Bordeaux style grilled rat), and it looks delicious.
Over the weekend, Zika and the field team returned from the Mtwara region in Southern Tanzania, where they worked with the Ward Councilor and village leaders to learn about rodent hunting and consumption, and partnered with local hunters to trap the popular delicacies for sampling. We know rodents, especially mice like Mastomys natalensis (the Natal multimammate mouse) are reservoir hosts for zoonotic viruses like Lassa Fever in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the hunting and consumption of wild meat is a risky practice for disease emergence. When we learned about the popularity of roasting mice in the area, sampling in Mtwara became a priority for disease surveillance as part of the USAID-funded PREDICT project.
After introducing PREDICT to the local leaders and identifying some hunters to help guide them towards prime trapping zones, the team captured 50 rodents (mainly field mice) in 3 different villages. As part of our disease outreach program, the team also talked with the hunters and local leaders about the risks of zoonotic diseases, and ways to minimize disease transmission between people and rodents. It seems rodent hunting is a popular activity for both children and adults in the area, and larger rodents fattened on grain after a harvest can sometimes feed several people. Hunters capture the rodents in locally made traps, and are typically roasted (nyama choma - barbecued meat). Cooking meat well is a good practice to destroy viral RNA that might cause diseases like Lassa Fever, and the HALI team did their best to communicate other risks involved in disease transmission from rodents like bites during trapping, cuts during butchering, or even inhaling aerosolized urine or feces if the animals were in the local traps for a time before removal for the big barbecue.
With the samples packed up in liquid nitrogen, the team transported them back to Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro. There, Ruth Maganga, PREDICT's laboratory technologist will process them and extract the RNA, and prepare them for viral screening to determine if any of the rodents we sampled were shedding viruses, and ultimately if those viruses might pose a threat to human health.