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News & features archive, 2011

Task Force on Avian Influenza Broadened to Cover Wider Disease Risks in Wildlife

© FAO/Lindsey McCrickard

05 December 2011 - The Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species has officially ratified the establishment of the Scientific Task Force on Wildlife and Ecosystem Health, a move reflecting the shift in focus in FAO and among partners from combating only avian influenza to caring for the health of animals, people and the ecosystems that support them through a "One Health" approach.

The former Task Force on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds was created in response to the global avian influenza pandemic (H5N1 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza), which emerged in 1997 and re-emerged in 2003, quickly spreading to more than 60 countries. In the aftermath, some 250 million domestic and wild birds died or were culled, incurring more than US$20 billion in economic losses, especially among some of society’s poorest people, who lost a major food source and their means of making a living. H5N1 HPAI also infected people and to date has resulted in more than 300 deaths.

The Task Force on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds will continue its work as one of the core focus areas within the larger, newly expanded Scientific Task Force on Wildlife and Ecosystem Health. The Influenza Task Force’s work in gathering scientific evidence and providing epidemiological analysis of the role of wild birds in the maintenance and spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) will continue to be crucial in guiding national policymakers in addressing and controlling avian influenza effectively. It has been most important in safeguarding against ill-conceived measures such as blanket culling of wild birds or habitat destruction.

Moving forward, the Task Force on Wildlife and Ecosystem Health will be monitoring species such as the Saiga antelope, which have died off in the thousands in the Ural Mountains from suspected Pasteurellosis. Pasteurellosis is a bacterial disease also known to affect yaks, common livestock in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which thus has direct implications for food security in the region.

In addition, the Task Force will provide information regarding bat ecology and behaviour, ecosystems services provided by bats, including pollination and seed dispersal, as well as bat disease ecology, with a focus on identifying diseases for which bats are reservoirs. As human populations increase and livestock populations expand to meet growing demand for meat and animal products, bat habitat is lost to encroachment, resulting in more frequent close contact among bats, pigs, and people. The resulting close contact with pigs in Malaysia, for example, led to Nipah virus being passed from bats to pigs and on to humans, again with devastating consequences for food supplies, economic activity and public health.

The 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (“COP-10”), held in Norway from 20-25 November, also approved the use of a “rumour-tracking” system known as the Wildlife Health Event Reporter (WHER) to record wildlife morbidity and mortality events. This system will link to the FAO Emergency Prevention System for Transboundary Animal and Plant Pests and Diseases and the EMPRES-i Disease Intelligence system to enable further verification of unusual epidemiological events in wildlife. Information will also be shared with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the World Health Organization (WHO) through the Global Early Warning System (GLEWS) Platform.

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