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Call for early warning system to monitor animal diseases

By Mark Henderson

BRITAIN is at high risk from emerging infections because of inadequate systems for monitoring animal diseases, according to a report released today.

A national surveillance agency is needed to protect against diseases such as bird flu and foot-and-mouth that can spread to people and livestock, the Zoological Society of London said.

In spite of the economic damage caused by the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 and the emerging threat of H5N1 avian flu in the Far East, Britain is less prepared than other countries such as the US, France and Canada.

Three quarters of all new human diseases, such as HIV/Aids and West Nile virus, come from animals and other pathogens have devastated wildlife populations and severely affected farms.

The British red squirrel population, for example, has declined in part because of the parapox virus; native crayfish have been virtually wiped out by fungal disease; and hundreds of thousands of frogs have succumbed to ranavirus.

The agricultural impact of animal disease is not limited to foot-and-mouth: there are major concerns, for example, that bovine tuberculosis is being spread by badgers.

Andrew Cunningham, head of wildlife epidemiology at the Zoological Society of London, said: “The situation must improve if we are to avoid repeats of the tremendous socio-economic damage caused by foot-and-mouth, Sars [severe acute respiratory syndrome], bird flu, badger tuberculosis and others. It is essential that the UK has increased protection from the danger of emerging infectious diseases as they can devastate our already threatened native wildlife and pose a real hazard to human health.”

At present, Britain monitors wildlife disease on an ad hoc basis, with different bodies sharing responsibility. The report calls for a unified national agency that would track animal disease continuously through clinical, post-mortem and population studies. The agency would regularly sample both wild animals and livestock for disease and take responsibility for investigating unusual deaths.

It could also employ newer methods of disease tracking such as satellite monitoring, which can be used to identify weather patterns such as El Niño that can be linked to outbreaks of animal disease.