Looking to Monkeys, CCP Works to Prevent Future Outbreaks

Health officials are concerned that monkeys in Ghana could infect humans with deadly diseases or viruses that may not even exist yet. These fears take on new meaning in COVID-19 era.
A monkey eats a snack at the Boabeng Fiema Monkey Sanctuary in Ghana. Pboto/Boabeng Fiema Monkey Sanctuary

In Central Ghana, in the 13 communities surrounding the Boabeng Fiema Monkey Sanctuary, monkeys regularly interact with humans, climbing into their homes outside the forest and snatching food from their tables.

Monkeys and humans have long co-existed peacefully, but health officials are concerned that monkeys could infect humans with deadly diseases or viruses that may not even exist yet. Concerned enough that they brought in the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs’ Breakthrough ACTION and local partners to create and disseminate messages to encourage nearby residents to “Help Keep Our People, Our Monkeys, and Our Forest Healthy” with specific messages on living and working safely with animals.

These messages have taken on new meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is believed to have originated in bats in Wuhan, China, that came into contact with people at a market. That interaction appears to have launched an outbreak that has sickened more than 17 million across the world since the end of 2019. Bats also live in the forest near the monkey sanctuary.

“The people in these communities have been living with these monkeys for all of these years and they have not experienced any serious disease,” says CCP’s Vivian Abiwu, a senior program officer in Ghana for Breakthrough ACTION. “Now that they have seen what happened with COVID-19, people have promised to be more careful.”

Zoonotic diseases are diseases that spread between animals and people. Once in a human population, some zoonotic diseases can then spread from person to person. Scientists estimate that three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals.

In recognition of the increasing importance of zoonotic diseases, Ghana identified and ranked six zoonotic diseases of greatest national concern – anthrax, avian influenza, viral hemorrhagic fevers, rabies, trypanosomiasis and zoonotic tuberculosis.

Before Breakthrough ACTION, a separate USAID-funded project was actively monitoring humans and wildlife to identify and categorize potential new viruses in Ghana. To develop new messages, Breakthrough ACTION Ghana collaborated with the Boabeng Fiema Monkey Sanctuary management and tour guides, school and wildlife officials, government stakeholders and the Ghana Health Service’s health promotion officers to adapt, pre-test and roll-out communication materials on how to live and work safely with the monkeys.

They produced 300 posters, 5,000 flyers and three billboards, as well as designed educational activities that highlight the potential dangers of close interaction with monkeys. The same messages are repeated by the tour guides in the sanctuary and shared on local radio networks.

A key message of the campaign is that people shouldn’t share their food with monkeys or eat food that monkeys have already touched. If monkeys are carrying disease, that would be a way to pass the infection to humans, Abiwu says. “Avoid eating any fruit or food that has been bitten by a monkey,” the billboard warns.

Samuel M. Amposah, the wildlife officer who runs the monkey sanctuary, says the messages are paying off.

“The materials and the associated education activities have afforded the communities a better understanding of the value of wildlife and promotes community ownership of animals and their habitat,” he says.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has led people to take the potential threats much more seriously. A local chief was turned from a skeptic to a believer after that outbreak began, Abiwu says.

“The fear is that if they continue the way they do, it could turn into something severe,” she says. “We want monkeys and humans to coexist, but as safely as possible. We don’t know what could happen in the future.”

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