The World Health Organisation (WHO) called on national authorities to suspend the trade in live caught wild mammal species for food or breeding purposes and close such sections of food markets as an emergency measure.
To reduce public health risks associated with the sale of live wild animals for food in traditional food markets, the WHO, Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have issued a guidance document on actions that national governments should adopt urgently with the aim to make traditional markets safer, while at the same time recognizing their central role in providing food and livelihoods for many people worldwide.
“On World Health Day last year, we sent an open letter to the WHO that was signed by 339 leading conservation and animal welfare organisations. We asked the WHO to among others recommend to governments worldwide to institute a permanent ban on live wildlife markets, drawing an unequivocal link between these markets and their proven threats to human health”, says Dr Louise de Waal (Steering Committee member of the Lion Coalition and Director of Blood Lions).
Zoonotic diseases are responsible for over two billion cases of human illness and over two million human deaths each year. Sixty percent (60%) of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic with 70% of these are thought to originate from wildlife.
The risk of zoonotic disease transmission is heightened by the unregulated and unhygienic conditions associated with wildlife markets, where close proximity between humans and animals provide the perfect opportunity for pathogens to spread.
This risk is further exacerbated by the conditions in which animals are typically farmed or collected from the wild, transported to and held at such markets, which inevitably result in large numbers of animals of different species being held in crowded conditions. These circumstances cause immense stress on the animals and weaken their immune systems. Coupled with the close proximity to people at wildlife markets, it provides the ideal situation for pathogens to replicate, spread, and potentially infect people.
“The guidelines released by the WHO are a welcome first step in acknowledging that informal markets are an unquantified risk to emerging zoonotic pandemics and human health and require the urgent engagement of regulatory authorities”, says Audrey Delsink (Steering Committee member of the Lion Coalition and Wildlife Director of Humane Society International-Africa). “However, we urge governments to ban trade, transport and consumption of all wild animals for all purposes, including medicinal purposes, fashion and entertainment and to make these bans permanent.”
Edith Kabesiime (Wildlife Campaign Manager, World Animal Protection Africa) concurs and states “the WHO is right to call for a halt on the sale of live wild animals in food markets, but markets aren’t the only problem. We must end all sides of the cruel global wildlife trade: exotic pets, traditional medicine and entertainment.”
A WHO statement points out that “although the guidance document focuses on the risk of disease emergence in traditional food markets, where live animals are sold for food, it is also relevant for other utilizations of wild animals.” “South Africa farms lions for commercial purposes, such as interactive tourism, captive hunting and the bone trade, and research has shown that 63 pathogens are associated with wild and captive lions. These pathogens can potentially transmit a total of 23 diseases from lions to people”, says de Waal. “If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is to never underestimate the potential impact of pathogens and zoonotic diseases.”
WHO Interim Guidance: Reducing public health risks associated with the sale of live wild animals of mammalian species in traditional food markets – Issued 12th April 2021