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Science - Education | Health | Environment - Nature

Tanzania vulture deaths may cause epidemic risks

afrol News, 20 June - An increased death rate in vultures in Tanzania could be explained by the unlicensed sale of diclofenac for veterinary use in the East Africa region, causing fatal kidney failure in the birds. Vultures play an important ecological role as scavengers of carcasses and their loss put human health at risk as rats take over their role.

A recent visitor to the Shoprite Complex veterinary retail shop in Arusha, Tanzania, reports that diclofenac is still on sale there. Diclofenac, which causes kidney failure in vultures, has been responsible for the near-extinction of three Gyps vulture species in India, with a decline of 99.9 percent in the case of critically endangered White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis.

The Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania (WCST) has determined that diclofenac is not licensed for veterinary use in Tanzania, contrary to information received last year. However, investigations by NatureKenya have found that there are no restrictions on the distribution and sale of veterinary diclofenac in Kenya. This is the probable source of diclofenac on sale in Arusha, WCST holds.

According to the assistant in the Arusha veterinary shop, up to 25 packets of Ouro Fino diclofenac 50 have been sold so far.

WCST and NatureKenya completed studies early in 2008 of the availability, distribution and use of diclofenac in Kenya and Tanzania, in an attempt to establish how much of a threat the drug poses to Africa's vultures. They conclude that the drug could pose an increased risk to the survival of vultures in the entire region, maybe in all of Africa.

Dr Chris Magin, International Officer for the UK-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said "it is frightening that an unlicensed veterinary drug is openly on sale in Tanzania, particularly given the catastrophic effects that diclofenac can have on vulture populations."

In India, the great loss of vultures due to diclofenac has caused serious ecological problems and risks to human health, which could be repeated in Africa. As vultures disappear, other scavengers of wild and domestic carcasses take over their role, mostly being dogs and rats. In India, a growing number of dogs has caused a spread of rabies, while more rats increase the risk of pandemic diseases to spread among human populations.

Indian authorities therefore took the issue very seriously as soon as a relationship between diclofenac for veterinary use and the mass death of vultures was established. The drug was effectively banned for veterinary use and vulture numbers now seem to be slightly increasing. Environmentalist hope East African authorities follow the Indian example before it is too late.

Diclofenac is no longer covered by a patent, and many hundreds of companies around the world manufacture it in both branded and generic forms. Ouro Fino, the Brazilian manufacturer of this brand of diclofenac, has been contacted by BirdLife International but has so far not commented on the situation.

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