Surinder Sud: Dangers of 'animal spirits'

Last Updated: Mon, Oct 22, 2012 21:40 hrs

Frequent outbreaks of bird flu, swine flu and other contagious diseases – which move from one country to another and pose a grave threat to animal as well as human health – have necessitated special strategies aimed at combating trans-boundary diseases (TBDs). Most countries are ill-equipped to prevent this cross-border movement, even if they are capable of managing these within their territories.

The liberalisation of global trade has led to a spurt in the trade of livestock products and animal feed. This has elevated the risk of dispersal of these diseases, despite the strict sanitary and phyto-sanitary norms mooted under the trade pact. Even the quarantine provisions that are in place in most countries prove ineffective against viruses and other pathogens disseminated through wild birds, animals and other carriers. The danger is that in the absence of adequate bio-security arrangements, these viruses may fall into the hands of unscrupulous elements and misused as weapons of bio-terrorism.

The list of TBDs is indeed long. The most significant are the highly pathogenic avian influenza (bird flu) caused by H5N1 virus, swine flu by H1N1 virus, the foot and mouth disease of cattle and other animals, and the NIPAH affliction caused by Nipah and Hendra viruses that cause inflammation of brain (encephalitis) and respiratory diseases in livestock and human beings. These and other TBDs are estimated to result in an annual economic loss of around $5 billion globally owing to animal mortality and morbidity.

India and its adjoining countries in South Asia are deemed to be the “hot spots” of many of these high-impact maladies. This region runs the risk of rapid spread of these diseases and suffering heavy losses because of the high density of livestock and human population and poor sanitary conditions. Given the porous borders and a free flow of animals and birds, it is difficult to surmount this menace without mutual cooperation.

It was with this end in view that a three-day meet of TBD experts from Asia and Pacific countries was held recently in New Delhi. Organised jointly by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutes, the meet identified the gaps in the preparedness for controlling these diseases and the steps needed to remedy them. The ultimate objective is to evolve a multi-pronged strategy to forewarn, prevent, detect and control these diseases.

Experts generally believe that the policy vacuum is more to blame than technical inadequacies for the unabated threat from these plagues. Public policies in most countries are oriented primarily towards managing domestic disease outbreaks rather than eradicating the infection in the foci of origin through joint regional action. Such myopic policies, obviously, fail to address the long-term consequences and move towards an enduring solution for this problem. The fiasco on this front, moreover, allows these viruses to mutate into more virulent forms. Besides, more effective barriers at the borders, constant surveillance and facilities for quick diagnosis are needed to ensure timely control operations.

India, fortunately, has already acquired an indigenous capability for speedy diagnosis of infectious diseases as well as for coping with emergencies. But this is not the case with some of its neighbouring countries where TBDs are almost endemic. A high-security animal disease laboratory was established at Bhopal way back in 1998. It was followed up by setting up several other diagnostic centres at different places. These facilities have helped to avert the inflow of serious maladies through import of live animals.

In 2001, for instance, some live rabbits imported for breeding programme were found to carry infection of “rabbit hemorrhagic disease” and were, thus, destroyed. However, most countries, including India, rely on mass slaughter of animals and birds for containing the local spread of TBDs. This method adversely affects livestock owners and entrepreneurs, since it takes long to rebuild the animal population.

Other means, notably vaccination and prophylactic measures, therefore, need to be considered. Suitable bio-security mechanisms and microbial forensic facilities are also urgently needed to cope with the potential bio-terrorism menace. The economic returns on investments made in these fields are bound to be far higher than the costs involved in coping with the consequences of these diseases.  

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