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A pangolin in the wild

Today, I have a couple of very different anniversaries. As a 10-year-old school boy in Cambridge, England, I still have a vivid memory of June 5 1944, when the sky filled with thousands of allied planes on their way to bomb the landing areas in Normandy. Some were towing gliders which would land troops behind the Nazi lines. Over 170,000 troops were landed from the sky and the sea on D Day. By the end of the invasion there were over 100,000 casualties.

My second anniversary is about the death of 30 million people from AIDS. 40 years ago I had just been appointed president and CEO of Family Health International, a research organiztion focused on contraceptive develpment in North Carolina. AIDS was a puzzling new disease. I launched the first project to try and protect sex workers in Africa from infection. Over the next decade, I spent millions of dollars of taxpayers' money trying to slow the spread of AIDS in that continent. In retrospect, I think the disease was more deeply embedded in the community than I realized.

The most likely scenario is that someone butchering a chimp carrying the AIDS virus cut themselves and became infected.

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AIDS is a zoonotic disease that probably jumped from chimpazees to people. Chimps are part of the bush meat trade in Africa (I’ve seen chimp limbs for sale as meat in Tanzania). The most likely scenario is that someone butchering a chimp carrying the AIDS virus cut themselves and became infected. As a result of that one apparetnly minor accident 30 million people were to die, and 30 million still carry the disease.

Pangolins – African ant eaters – are known to carry Covid 19. Pangolins are considered an elite, expensive food, and millions have been exported from Africa to Vietnam and China – where the first transmissiion to people probably occurred.

I am embarrassed to say that I once ended up eating a pangolin when my hosts in Chad invited me to lunch in an African restaurant – yes, you eat the scales of this odd mammal.

malcolm potts

The three adjectives that describe Public Health are prevention, prevention, and prevention. Five hundred of the approximately 4,000 mammalian species may carry bacteria or viruses that could infect Homo sapiens. The takeaway message should be to prevent exporting animals from Africa to other countries and to monitor and focus on markets where wild animals are eaten.

Malcolm Potts
The Berkeley Blog