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Do cattle heads sold on Joburg’s streets carry a risk of Ebola?

This article is more than 5 years old

Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba has apologised for his “insensitivity towards the plight of informal traders” in South Africa’s biggest city.

The apology came after Mashaba tweeted that he had “personally stopped” an “illegal” act in the city. A photo showed a man pulling a trolley filled with cattle heads.

A Twitter user replied that Mashaba should rather help small businesses comply with regulations. Mashaba then tweeted: “We are [not] going to sit back and allow people like you to bring us Ebolas in the name of small business.” (Note: In the same statement, Mashaba also apologised for suggesting the meat could cause an Ebola outbreak.)

Is there a risk that Ebola - the deadly viral haemorrhagic fever - can spread from cattle heads sold on the street?

Raw beef ‘definitely not an Ebola risk’

The highly contagious Ebola virus can be transmitted from animals to people. Several outbreaks have been traced back to people who were likely to have had contact with bush meat – the meat of wild animals such as antelopes and monkeys.

Contact with the raw blood and meat of an infected wild animal is particularly dangerous. Should we be worried about cattle too?  

Dr Jacqueline Weyer of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases told Africa Check that “cattle have not been implicated in the natural transmission cycle of Ebola virus" and that there hadn't been any report of Ebola virus disease in animals in South Africa before.

"We have no suspected or confirmed human cases of Ebola in the country currently. The only confirmed case of Ebola virus in a human in South Africa dates back to 1996." 

The institute’s Dr Kerrigan McCarthy said that while raw beef was “definitely not an Ebola risk”, the meat “may be contaminated by a variety of other bacterial organisms, including salmonella, E coli and listeria”.

That is why South Africa has regulations to ensure the safe and hygienic slaughter of meat, she said. It is also why people should follow food safety guidelines by using safe ingredients, washing their hands before and after preparing food, and storing food at the right temperature. - Cayley Clifford (16/11/2018)

CORRECTION: This fact-check has been amended to clarify that Dr Jacqueline Weyer said that there are no suspected or confirmed cases of Ebola virus disease in South Africa as of November 2018.

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