POSTnote on Wildlife Diseases at Westminster Hall

Yesterday a POSTnote seminar was held on the topic of Wildlife Diseases at Westminster Hall, with speakers Dr Andrew Cunningham, Institute of Zoology, Vic Simpson, Wildlife Veterinary Investigation Centre, and Matthew Hartley, DEFRA.

Wildlife diseases can be both a driver of biodiversity loss and a potential threat to human health. For wildlife, diseases can lead to increased susceptibility to other diseases and reduced reproductive capacity. Numerous diseases are believed to have been introduced from outside the UK, indicating the need for better monitoring of diseases and improved regulation of animal imports and movements. For example the squirrelpox virus, which affects red squirrels but not grey squirrels, is thought to have been introduced by grey squirrels and has been identified as a major contributor of red squirrel decline. Ranavirus affects amphibians in the UK, and phylogeographic research suggests that the disease has been introduced from the USA. And globally, Chytridiomycosis is a major threat to all amphibians and an important driver of amphibian population declines.

Despite these considerable threats, not to mention the unknown threats from emerging and as-yet undiscovered viruses, there is no single government body designed and equipped to deal specifically with wildlife diseases, a strong point highlighted by the speakers. The Wildlife Health Strategy is in place to cover issues pertaining to wildlife disease, but only has the budget and resources to respond reactively to emerging events.

There was a general concensus that there is an urgent need for a new government body to deal with wildlife diseases, although at present DEFRA does not have the resources for a restructuring. Vic Simpson, a veterinary pathologist by training, identified the link between pesticide pollution – Polychlorobiphenyls led to increased disease susceptibility in otters and other problems – and the near-extinction of otters in the UK. His work enabled a succesful reintroduction campaign, having identified the cause of the problem. However, due to DEFRA’s chronic underfunding, the important work of Vic Simpson has been cut short.

The seminar was an excellent opportunity to expose an interesting and under-explored topic of disease ecology, coming at a time when when fresh outbreaks of Avian Influenza are reported to be impacting on Oxfordshire poultry farms. There is clearly an urgent need for a wildlife department in the UK capable of dealing with wildlife diseases.

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