Animal epidemics escalating

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am


The weak and ill-managed quarantine network is to blame for a rise in animal epidemics, particularly those that can be transmitted to humans, veterinary experts warn.

The State Council has issued a blueprint on how to prevent and treat animal epidemics for the next eight years, noting several outbreaks and the dramatic rise in recent years of cases such as rabies, bird flu and brucellosis, a fever-causing bacterial infection caught from livestock.

'Research shows 70 per cent of animal epidemics can be transmitted to humans and 75 per cent of new illnesses discovered in humans recently have come from animals or food of animal origin,' it said. 'Without control of animal epidemics, public health will be seriously damaged.'

According to a recent report by Caixin Century Weekly, the rate of infection of brucellosis has increased 30 times the figure 15 years ago. Last year alone there were 38,151 human cases of brucellosis, which can be caught when people ingest infected milk or meat or come into contact with secretions of infected animals - usually goats, sheep and dogs.

'A lot of farmers don't vaccinate the animals they raise,' said Professor Yan Jie, from the school of basic medical sciences at Zhejiang University. 'Sometimes it's because they want to save money; sometimes it's because they're unaware of what will happen if their animals contract an epidemic disease.

'Supervision is weak in many rural regions. Some places don't even have a veterinary centre.'

While the Animal Epidemic Prevention Law has been in place on the mainland since 2008, Yan said it was difficult to implement in rural areas where the grass roots often lacked professional knowledge.

Similarly, Dr Wang Dali, from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, was quoted by the weekly newspaper as saying that the brucellosis situation on the mainland was now the worst it had been for five to six decades.

The Caixin report quoted experts who estimated that at least half of brucellosis cases went unreported. The disease can lead to incapacitation and cause permanent damage to the central nervous system.

In September last year, Northeast Agricultural University in Heilongjiang province apologised for botched lab tests on goats that led to 27 students and one teacher being infected with brucellosis.

It is now among 16 diseases that local governments should prioritise in their epidemic-prevention efforts, according to the State Council's blueprint.

These include foot-and-mouth disease, highly pathogenic bird flu and blue-ear pig disease and rabies, along with parasitic infections like snail fever and hydatid disease.

Rabies, for one, killed about 2,000 mainlanders last year, according to Yan Jiaxin, from the mainland's top rabies research body, Wuhan Institute of Biological Products.

He said the authorities should be more actively involved in fighting the disease, which humans can contract when they are bitten by an infected animal. If left untreated, rabies victims can go comatose or die.

'The officials can push for dogs across the country to be vaccinated and it's a cost-effective way to prevent humans from contracting rabies,' he said. 'That would contrast with the current method, spearheaded just by the health authorities, which squandered billions of yuan and still yielded bad results.'

Professor Zhu Guoqiang from Yangzhou University, who specialises in salmonellosis, a type of food poisoning triggered by salmonella bacteria, said humans could come into contact with epidemic-causing tainted animal products through a host of 'processing and transport situations' unless strict quarantine rules were in place.

Each province and municipality has been ordered to reach targets for curbing specific diseases. For example, 12 provinces with high rabies infections must halve the number of cases by 2015 and reduce it to just a handful by 2020.

By that year, the blueprint says, disease rates among pigs should be below 5 per cent, poultry below 6 per cent, cattle below 4 per cent and sheep below 3 per cent - significantly lowering the risks of animal diseases and their transmission to humans.

Experts say funding is essential to realise these targets. Last year, Fengning county, Hebei, the site of a brucellosis outbreak in 2005, only had 100,000 yuan (HK$123,000) to buy vaccines and hire staff - about one-tenth of what was required - a local animal health official said.

'It's impossible for county-level governments, usually with strained coffers, to subsidise farmers in giving vaccines [to their animals] or compensate farmers if their animals are found to carry infectious diseases and need to be slaughtered,' said Yan, from Zheijiang.

'It should be the responsibilities of provincial-level or central governments. Without enough funding, animal epidemic quarantine will meet with resistance from both farmers and local law enforcement staff.'