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Last Updated: Monday, 31 October 2005, 10:20 GMT
Call for new wildlife trade rules
By Helen Briggs
BBC News science reporter

Diseases can spread between animals at markets
Current regulations are inadequate to stop imports of pets and livestock from spreading lethal diseases, say international scientists.

A new global body is needed to regulate wildlife trade in light of threats such as Sars and bird flu, they say.

The call comes from the scientific steering committee of the non governmental organisation, Diversitas.

The panel will discuss the matter at an open science conference to be held in Mexico on November 9-12.

Dr Peter Daszak, a member of the scientific steering committee of the Paris-based group, said there needed to be better analysis of animal species being moved around the world.

While some species such as parrots are subject to quarantine regulations, this is not the case for other animals, such as reptiles and amphibians, he said.

"It is clear that the trade in wildlife is a huge source of disease emergence," he told the BBC News website. "Nobody is out there monitoring these things."

Economic costs

Dr Daszak, executive director of the Consortium for Conservation Medicine at the Wildife Trust, New York, said that techniques are available to screen animals for emerging viruses.

Sars emerged from animals traded for food

Although it would not be practical to screen all wildlife imports and exports, random tests on a selected number of shipments would give a global picture of how diseases might be being spread around the world, he explained.

"We need to move proactively and deal with the threat before diseases emerge," he said.

As well as the cost to human health, Diversitas, the international programme of biodiversity science, funded by Unesco, will also consider the economic impact of emerging infectious diseases, such as Sars and bird flu.

Dr Daszak, part of the scientific team that connected Asian bats in China with Sars, says the virus, which took 700 lives, cost over $50 billion to the global economy in 2003, emerging from a trade in wildlife for food.

"The economic impact of bird flu is likely to exceed this, especially if we get person-to-person transmission," he said.

"It is likely to cost us many hundreds of millions of dollars under current estimates, and will be incredibly costly in terms of loss of human life."

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