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Last Updated: Monday, 29 September, 2003, 09:23 GMT 10:23 UK
UAE falcons speed 'bird medicine'
Falcons in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates have been the key to a number of recent developments in avian (bird) medicine.

Peregrine falcon
Falcons are very much prized in Dubai
Falconry is a massive sport in the UAE, with some birds fetching a price of US $40,000 - so owners are keen to keep them in their best condition.

A typical examination of a bird includes endoscope tests of the lungs, parasite tests - from both faecal and swab samples - blood tests for anaemia and underlying infection, and X-rays.

"This is pretty routine - the clients expect the medicines to be a pretty high standard, and because the training starts immediately, they don't want to wait," Tom Bailey, a vet at the Dubai Falcon Hospital, told BBC World Service's Health Matters programme.

Human connection

The falcon is one of the most successful birds in the UAE, and is often seen high above the country's deserts. It adorns many official logos in Dubai, as well as being printed on the country's money.

In 1983, the Dubai Falcon Hospital in the region was set up with his Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the deputy leader of Dubai and Minister for Health, as sponsor.

Dubai's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum
The Dubai royals are very keen on sport
The connection between the hospital and Dubai's Department of Health has meant that a number of developments in human medicine have crossed directly into avian treatment.

The latest example is aspergillosis. It affects many birds, but some types of falcon are particularly vulnerable to the illness, which causes the growth of fungus in the lungs.

Falcons that contract aspergillosis have their ability to fly fast and hunt degraded - so a way to tackle it is of particular interest in Dubai.

Since aspergillosis also affects humans with immuno-suppression diseases such as HIV, researchers at the falcon hospital have been testing how useful one new human drug for the illness, voroconozol, is on the birds.

So far the results are very promising.

Growing interest

"We have a good rate of success with this new medicine," the hospital's chief vet, Antonio di Somma, told Health Matters.

"It is very expensive, but it allows us to save a lot of falcon life."

Dr di Somma is the first in the world to try voroconozol in species other than humans.

Chickens
Most bird medicines are developed from chickens
Dr Bailey said that avian medicine was such a specialised area of study that it was important the hospital had the freedom to try out treatment from other spheres.

"It's very often the case [that we try out new drugs] simply because very few medicines are marketed or tested on birds," he said.

"Avian medicine's quite a new field, although it's become quite a popular field now in the West.

"Obviously there's a lot of work done on chickens, so we use some medicines that have been developed on chickens, but we're dealing with a different type of bird.

"Chicken medicine is flock medicine, flock treatment."

UAE advantages

But he pointed out that this way of working - taking "what we can from different fields" - was only possible because of the UAE's more relaxed system of veterinary treatment.

"If we were in Europe or North America, veterinary medicine is highly regulated," he said.

"There is a cascade system, so there are certain drugs you have to use first of all.

"If you were a client coming in with a falcon and there was a medicine I knew I could use but it wasn't registered for use, I would have to tell you that it was extra-label and there may be side-effects.

"Over here, there's no proper veterinary regulation, so we don't face this problem at all - we use what we think is appropriate."

However, he conceded that it was unlikely that such a situation would continue indefinitely.

"It's not ideal. It does mean that we can use a greater range of products - so as vets we're given much greater flexibility and freedom to practice our medicine - but obviously there are disadvantages, too.

"For sure in the future the situation will have to be tightened up."





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