Farm animals spawn new infectious diseases

A growing number of livestock, such as cows and pigs, are fueling new animal epidemics worldwide and posing more severe problems in developing countries, as it threatens their food security, according to a new report.

Some 700 million people in developing countries keep farm animals and these animals generate up to 40% of their household income, the report by the International Livestock Research Institute said.

"Wealthy countries are effectively dealing with livestock diseases, but in Africa and Asia, the capacity of veterinary services to track and control outbreaks is lagging dangerously behind livestock intensification," Dr John McDermott and Delia Grace at the Nairobi-based institute said.

Poor rely on farm animals

"This lack of capacity is particularly dangerous because many poor people in the world still rely on farm animals to feed their families, while rising demand for meat, milk and eggs among urban consumers in the developing world is fueling a rapid intensification of livestock production."

As many as 75% of emerging infectious diseases originate in animals, they added. Of these, 61% are transmissible between animals and humans.

"A new disease emerges every four months; many are trivial but HIV, SARS and avian influenza illustrate the huge potential impacts," Dr McDermott and Dr Grace wrote in their report.

Huge economic costs

Epidemics like SARS in 2003, sporadic outbreaks of the H5N1 avian flu since 1997, and the H1N1 swine flu pandemic of 2009 racked up enormous economic costs around the world.

While SARS cost between $50 billion to $100 billion, the report cited a World Bank estimate in 2010, predicting that an avian flu pandemic could cost as much as $3 trillion.

The report warned that rapid urbanisation and climate change could act as "wild cards," altering the present distribution of diseases, sometimes "dramatically for the worse."

The two researchers urged developing countries to improve animal disease surveillance and speed up testing procedures to help contain livestock epidemics before they become widespread. - (Tan Ee Lyn/Reuters Health, February 2011)

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