Illegal animal trade triggering infectious diseases like Zika: UN report

Millions of animals and plants are shuttled illegally around the world each day, posing the risk of disease transmission, says report


Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but it is estimated that 40,000 live primates, 4 million live birds, 640,000 live reptiles, and 350 million live tropical fish are traded globally each year, said report. Photo: Reuters
Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but it is estimated that 40,000 live primates, 4 million live birds, 640,000 live reptiles, and 350 million live tropical fish are traded globally each year, said report. Photo: Reuters

New Delhi: About 40,000 live primates, four million live birds, 640,000 live reptiles and 350 million live tropical fish are estimated to be illegally traded, globally, each year and this is triggering nearly all major emerging infectious or zoonotic diseases like sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Ebola and Zika, said a report released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on Monday.

Zoonotic diseases are those that can be passed on between animals and humans and the UNEP report stresses how the emergence and re-emergence of zoonotic diseases are closely interlinked with the health of ecosystems.

The report said zoonotic diseases affect human health, agriculture, economy and environmental integrity and have had led to direct costs of more than $100 billion and indirect costs of an estimated $200 billion for affected economies. “If these outbreaks had become human pandemics, the losses would have amounted to several trillion dollars,” the UN report emphasized.

The report, titled ‘UNEP Frontiers 2016: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern’, found that there has been a worldwide increase in emerging zoonotic diseases, outbreaks of epidemic zoonoses, a rise in food-borne zoonoses and a troubling persistence of neglected zoonotic diseases in poor countries.

“Never before have so many animals been kept by so many people—and never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass through the biophysical environment and wild animals to livestock and people as zoonotic diseases or zoonoses. About 60% of all infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic as are 75% of all emerging infectious diseases,” said the report.

The report said that as per estimates, millions of live animals and plants are shuttled illegally around the world each day. “Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but it is estimated that 40,000 live primates, 4 million live birds, 640,000 live reptiles, and 350 million live tropical fish are traded globally each year,” it said, adding that the greatest risk of disease transmission is posed by the illicit traffic of animals and plants.

It is because none of the animals in the illegal live trade go through quarantine or any veterinary screens. As a result, many of them who were kept in unsanitary conditions for weeks pass through transit countries and arrive at their destinations carrying bacteria and parasites capable of spreading diseases.

The report stressed that several emerging zoonotic diseases hit world headlines as they caused, or threatened to cause, major pandemics.

“In addition to bird flu, these include Rift Valley fever, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), West Nile virus, Ebola and the Zika virus,” it added.

The report explained that examples of zoonotic diseases emerging when land is cleared for human activity can be found in many regions and on most continents, adding that climate change was a major factor for disease emergence.

“Changes in the environment are usually the result of human activities, ranging from land use change to changing climate. Encroachment on natural ecosystems through resource exploitation, agricultural activity, and human settlements provides opportunities for pathogens to spill over from wild animals to people,” it said.

“Growing evidence suggests that outbreaks or epidemic diseases may become more frequent as climate continues to change,” report added.

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