Better protection for the diversity of the planet's
creatures and plants could help shield humans from diseases
or bird flu and save billions of dollars
in health care costs, researchers said.
They said human disruptions to biodiversity -- from roads
through the Amazon jungle to deforestation in remote parts
of Africa -- had made people more exposed to new diseases
that originate in wildlife.
"Biodiversity not only stores the promise of new medical
treatments and cures, it buffers humans from organisms
and agents that cause disease," scientists from the Diversitas
international group said in a statement.
"Preventing emerging diseases through biodiversity conservation
is far more cost effective than developing vaccines to
combat them later," it said ahead of a November 9-10 conference
of 700 biodiversity experts in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Peter Daszak, a scientist who helped find links between
Asian bats and the SARS virus,
said the 2003 outbreak of the flu-like disease cost about
$50 billion, largely because it cut travel and trade
from Asia. About 800 people died.
And AIDS, widely believed to have originated in chimpanzees,
killed an estimated 3.1 million people in 2004 and the
United Nations estimates that
$15 billion will be needed for prevention, treatment
and care in 2006 alone.
"Emerging diseases are causing a crisis of public health,"
Daszak, executive director of the consortium for conservation
medicine at the Wildlife Trust, New York stated.
WILDLIFE TO PEOPLE
Diversitas experts urged governments to work out policies
to protect biodiversity, including tougher regulations
on trade, agriculture and travel to reduce chances that
diseases like avian flu can jump from wildlife to people.
"We're not saying that we should lock up nature and throw
away the key," said Charles Perrings, a biodiversity expert
at Arizona State University. But he said humans should
be more careful about disrupting areas of rich biodiversity.
He said diseases had spread from wildlife to humans throughout
history but the risks were rising because of the impact
of growing human populations on habitats.
The experts said the preservation of a wider range of
species could also ease the impact of disease.
A factor helping the spread of Lyme disease in the eastern
United States, for instance, was the absence of former
predators like wolves or wild cats that once kept down
numbers of white-footed mice -- a reservoir of the infection.
Lyme disease was also less of a problem for humans in
U.S. states where the ticks that transmit the disease
had more potential targets, like lizards or small mammals.
"The value of services provided by nature and its diversity
is under-appreciated until they stop," said Anne Larigauderie,
executive director of Paris-based Diversitas, a non-government
She said China had to employ people in some regions to
pollinate apple orchards because the over-use of pesticides
had killed off bees. "It maybe takes 10 people to do the
work of two beehives," she stated.
And the Australian gastric brooding frog had once been
seen as key for anti-ulcer drugs because it bizarrely
incubated its young in its stomach after shutting off
digestive acids. It has since become extinct, taking its
secrets with it.