NEW YORK (March 30, 2016) Wildlife markets in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) illegally trade in high volumes of protected species and animals that can host dangerous pathogens, reports a new study from an international team of leading wildlife health professionals.
This Lao PDR trade, which endangers the region’s biodiversity, has the potential to be a serious human health threat globally.
At seven markets surveyed three times over the course of the study, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) researchers and Laos PDR partners observed more than a ton of living and/or recently killed mammals offered for human consumption.
The species observed represented 12 taxonomic families capable of hosting 36 serious zoonotic pathogens. Such pathogens can “jump” from animals to humans and cause serious and sometimes rapidly spreading diseases. Examples of these ‘zoonotic’ pathogens include rabies virus, ebolaviruses, hantaviruses, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, and highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 virus.
The market surveillance work was undertaken in Lao PDR by WCS, their government partners, the National Animal Health Laboratory, and FHI360 as part of the USAID-funded PREDICT (http://predict.global) and PREVENT projects to identify new emerging infectious disease threats and to reduce the risk of transmission to humans.
“As veterinarians we have responsibilities for ensuring the public's health,” said Dr. Watthana Theppangna, co-author and Head of the PREDICT partner Bio-Safety Level III Laboratory at the Lao PDR National Animal Health Laboratory. “We are worried about the presence of wildlife in markets and the potential for pathogens to spread to people through the wildlife trade."
On average, 92 individual mammals per day were observed in conditions that support frequent wildlife/human contact—and ultimately could facilitate pathogen spillover.
In addition to the frequent wildlife/human contact due to the volume of animals, researchers observed a lack of biosecurity practices in the seven markets, further indicating the potential for pathogen transmission from infected wildlife to humans.
For example, only one of 11 vendors handling and butchering wildlife practiced hand washing, and running water was not present in all markets.
In addition, vegetable or other fresh-food products were frequently in contact with wildlife products, providing a route for cross-contamination.
According to Dr. Sarah Olson, a co-lead author of the study with WCS’s Wildlife Health & Health Policy Program, “Human disease-causing pathogens clearly lurk in wildlife markets. The danger to your health is just less visible than the dangers to conservation. You can usually observe endangered species illegally on sale, but a range of largely invisible pathogens are likely there as well.”
To understand the conservation threats, the researchers analyzed 375 daily surveys conducted across 93 wildlife markets. A total of 238 individual animals were classified as “threatened with extinction” according to the globally recognized IUCN Red List. Nationally, all wildlife sold in the markets are protected under the Lao PDR Wildlife and Aquatic Law.
Of particular concern for conservation were the high volumes of endangered animals observed (turtles, tortoises, deer, lorises, etc.). Also of interest was the finding that wildlife meat was consistently more expensive than domestic animal meat. This sheds light on the present dynamics of wildlife consumption in Lao PDR, suggesting that wildlife is sold in markets to affluent urban consumers, rather than for subsistence consumption. This has further implications for potential disease spread due to the biosecurity conditions in the trade and the movement of wildlife around the country to urban centers.
Mr. Soubanh Silithammavong, co-author and PREDICT Country Coordinator in Lao PDR said, “Although enforcement efforts are being made by the Government of Lao PDR to curb the illegal trade in wildlife, the government needs more support to raise capacity to conduct investigations and prosecutions of wildlife traders. This study should help raise awareness of the serious threat that wildlife trade in Lao PDR poses to both biodiversity and human health.”
“Wildlife trade and human health in Lao PDR: an assessment of the zoonotic disease risk in markets,” appears online in PLOS ONE (http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150666). The co-first authors are Zoe F. Greatorex (formerly WCS) and Sarah H. Olson (WCS).
About the WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society)
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is a US nonprofit, tax-exempt, private organization established in 1895 that saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. With long-term commitments in dozens of landscapes, presence in more than 60 nations, and experience helping to establish over 150 protected areas across the globe, WCS has amassed the biological knowledge, cultural understanding and partnerships to ensure that vibrant, wild places and wildlife thrive alongside local communities. WCS was the first conservation organization with a dedicated team of wildlife veterinarians and other health professionals deployed around the world. The WCS Wildlife Health & Health Policy Program focuses on problem-solving at the wildlife / domestic animal / human health and livelihoods interface, as underpinned by a foundation of environmental stewardship. Visit: newsroom.wcs.org Follow: @WCSNewsroom. For more information: 347-840-1242.
About PREDICT & UC Davis’ One Health Institute
USAID’s PREDICT Project is conducting surveillance in 31 countries to detect and prevent spillover of pathogens of pandemic potential that can move between animals and people. The project is part of USAID’s Global Health Security and Development Program and is led by the University of California Davis’ One Health Institute in the School of Veterinary Medicine. The senior author of the study is the Institute’s Executive Director, Professor Jonna Mazet. The UC Davis One Health Institute is active all over the world, working at the interface of animals, people, and the environment to solve complex problems that impact health and conservation. The Institute grew out of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s deep commitment to the One Health approach and is home to the well-established Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center. In addition to UC Davis and WCS, the other global implementing partners for PREDICT are EcoHealth Alliance, Metabiota, and the Smithsonian Institution.
About EcoHealth Alliance
Building on over 40 years of groundbreaking science, EcoHealth Alliance is a global, nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting wildlife and safeguarding human health from the emergence of disease. The organization develops ways to combat the effects of damaged ecosystems on human and wildlife health. Using environmental and health data covering the past 60 years, EcoHealth Alliance scientists created the first-ever, global disease hotspots map that identified at-risk regions, to help predict and prevent the next pandemic crisis. That work is the foundation of EcoHealth Alliance's rigorous, science-based approach, focused at the intersection of the environment, health, and capacity building. Working in the U.S. and more than 20 countries worldwide, EcoHealth Alliance's strength is founded on innovations in research, training, global partnerships, and policy initiatives. For more information, please visit www.ecohealthalliance.org.