Q: You study the relationship among human, animal, and environmental health in Nigeria. What does that mean?
FRIANT: I worked in communities that rely on wildlife for food, money, and cultural practices, and where it’s impossible to ignore the threat of wildlife-to-human disease transmission. Human behavior and socioeconomic patterns to risky behavior impact transmission, so minimizing that means understanding human components of disease systems.
Q: What kinds of behaviors?
FRIANT: These communities live in close proximity to rodents that transmit the Lassa virus, an acute viral infection that can cause hemorrhagic fever. Agricultural practices can facilitate rodent population growth, and they can drive rodents into homes for food and shelter. I also study diseases like monkeypox that come from the interaction of humans with wild animals through bushmeat hunting, animal trade, or other cultural practices.
Q: Don’t these communities rely on bushmeat as a primary food source?
FRIANT: Yes, but they also use wild animals for medicine and cultural practices. And then there’s the wildlife trade, which is very lucrative. All of these create close personal contacts between humans and wild animals across wildlife commodity chains.
Q: What qualifies as “bushmeat”?
FRIANT: They consume over 60 kinds of bushmeat, including bats, rodents, ungulates, primates, pangolins, elephants, birds, and reptiles. Porcupine is the overwhelming favorite.
Q: So, a better understanding of human behaviors might minimize disease transmission?
FRIANT: If we can understand the underlying drivers of disease and the pathways through which they spread, we’ll be able to better understand and control the patterns of contact.
Q: How are you doing that?
FRIANT: In addition to vertical solutions like vaccines and medicines, we need horizontal solutions targeting the root drivers of transmission—including poverty and cultural preferences—that might motivate contact. For the Lassa virus project: People don’t like rodents in their homes, and they destroy large amounts of crops, which people consider a greater threat than disease. We hope to come up with interventions that can change agricultural practices to decrease the number of rodents and how they move within human-dominated landscapes. For the bushmeat project, we did backyard chicken and animal husbandry, which targets the perceived and real need for food. That could help reduce bushmeat hunting and disease transmission.
Q: What lessons can we learn from your work in terms of approaching health through behavioral ecology?
FRIANT: Through COVID-19, we’ve seen the damage that can occur from wildlife-origin diseases before biomedical solutions can help us get a handle on the situation. Addressing the behaviors and environment interactions that facilitate emergence is important for maintaining global health security. —SI
Sagan Friant is an assistant professor of anthropology.