Health Experts Call for a New Kind of Airport Surveillance

January 10, 2012

A study finds evidence that bushmeat (including these straw-colored fruit bats) illegally imported into the country by air can contain and spread pathogens from wildlife to humans, and establishes the importance of tracking diseases associated with the illegal wildlife trade at U.S. ports.

If any more proof of the illegal wildlife trade’s enormous global impact was needed, it’s here—literally—at JFK International Airport, George Bush Intercontinental-Houston and Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International. And as the trade grows, so does its health risks. Experts have now identified evidence of retroviruses and herpesviruses in illegally imported wildlife products confiscated at these three U.S. airports.

An article released in PLoS ONE entitled "Zoonotic Viruses Associated with Illegally Imported Wildlife Products" details the case. The study was conducted by WCS in collaboration with various health partners and led by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The groups initiated the pilot program in order to establish surveillance and testing methods to uncover the potential public health risks from illegally imported wildlife products coming into the U.S. Their findings show the potential for international travel hubs to serve as a pathway to disease emergence in animals and humans.

“The increase in international travel and trade brings with it an increased risk of unmonitored pathogens via the illegal wildlife trade,” said Dr. Denise McAloose, chief pathologist for WCS’s Global Health Program. The global trade of wildlife has largely contributed to the emergence of new diseases in livestock, native wildlife, and humans worldwide. Current research shows that 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases affecting people originate from contact with wildlife. The global wildlife trade contributes to the transmission of these sicknesses.

Items confiscated as part of the study included raw to semi-cooked animal parts, identified by American Museum of Natural History’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, Columbia University, and WCS as baboons, chimpanzees, and various rodent species. Pathogen analysis was conducted at the CDC National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention and Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity. Among the pathogens identified in the products were a zoonotic retrovirus, simian foamy viruses, and several nonhuman primate herpesviruses. These results are the first to confirm that illegally imported bushmeat can contain and spread pathogens, and suggest a need for surveillance of the trade to help prevent disease emergence.

The U.S. is one of the largest consumers of imported wildlife products and wildlife. A previous study by EcoHealth Alliance, one of the study partners, showed that between 2000 and 2006, approximately 1.5 billion live wild animals were legally imported into the U.S., with 90 percent slated for the pet trade. Programs like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Healthy Pets, Healthy People and EcoHealth Alliance’s PetWatch encourage responsible exotic pet choices and ownership. U.S. Fish and Wildlife records show that more than 55 million pounds of wildlife products enter the country each year, with New York City the most common port of entry, followed by Miami and Los Angeles.

Beyond the public health risks of the live and non-live wildlife trade are risk of disease introduction to native wildlife and agricultural species, proliferation of non-native wildlife causing damage to U.S. ecosystems, as well as the protection of threatened and endangered species.

The pilot study is the first to establish port surveillance methodology to test for diseases associated with wildlife products. Through improved monitoring, authorities will have a better chance of preventing new diseases from emerging through this dangerous illegal trade.

To learn more, read the press release.

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