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The Working Group of the Office International des Epizooties has just submitted its annual report on wildlife diseases reported throughout the world over the past twelve months.

Some of the major diseases to have emerged during this period include:

Diseases transmissible to humans:

  • In-depth investigations were conducted in 1997 to explain the presence of the bacterium Escherichia coli 0157H7 in dried meat preparations made from American deer. Studies carried out in the United States of America confirmed that this enterobacillus, which is particularly dangerous to humans, could sometimes be found in the intestine or faeces of healthy deer. However, it has not been possible to isolate the bacterium in the muscle of carrier animals. If the results of this first study were to prove true in general, it would mean that the meat is contaminated at the time the game is prepared in the field. Hygienic handling of the carcass should therefore prevent the meat from becoming contaminated.

  • Again in the United States of America, chronic wasting disease of cervids (a spongiform encephalopathy) has been identified among captive wapiti in Dakota and Nebraska. These two States are remote from a known outbreak of this disease which occurred at the border between Colorado and Wyoming, affecting wild animals. The origin of these new cases appears to be linked to a stay by the affected animals on ranches located outside the above-mentioned two States, where the disease had already been reported.

  • During the winter of 1997/1998, seven chamois and ibex from the Val de Bagnes, Canton of Valais, in Switzerland, were reported to be suffering from a new disease, causing nervous symptoms. Laboratory studies suggested a possible arbovirus infection: tick meningo-encephalitis. The presence of the virus had never before been reported in this region.

  • In Europe, another disease seriously threatening human health, Echinococcus hydatid disease (multilocularis), appears to be more widespread than was previously thought. The fact that the parasite is found in areas where it had never before been identified, suggests that either its distribution area has expanded, or there has been a change in human activities favouring its communication from foxes to humans.

  • Tuberculosis is still a major problem among buffaloes and kudu in the Kruger National Park (South Africa), as well as among lions feeding from their carcasses.

  • Cases of rabies have been reported among fruit-eating bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) sold in Europe. It would appear that the animals are silent carriers of the rabies virus, which could be dangerous to the people breeding them.

  • Finally, theories currently being tested point to the role of the "El Niño" weather system in the explosion in blood-sucking insect populations. This is thought to have resulted in an epidemic of Rift Valley fever affecting humans and livestock in East Africa. A high mortality rate observed in Kenya among wild ungulates, especially gerenuk and small kudu, could be related to this epidemic.

Serious diseases affecting only animals:

Several striking diseases, affecting wild and domestic animals alike, have been reported to the Working Group:

  • In France, eight dogs died last winter after having been contaminated by the Aujeszky’s disease virus during wild boar hunts. Similar cases had already been reported previously, both in Europe and the United States of America, but never in such great numbers and over such a short period of time.

  • The discovery of the introduction into Florida of ticks from the Amblyomma marmoreum species, due to imports of turtles from the Seychelles, caused a public outcry. In fact, this tick is alleged to be the reservoir of heartwater, an exotic disease hitherto unknown in the United States of America, but which has been introduced into the Caribbean. A survey carried out at the time of these events revealed that several hundred thousand reptiles enter the United States of America every year, nearly one-third of which are infected by ticks. Even though this international trade is regulated, there are no quarantine measures for such animals. Plans for regulation are therefore under examination.

  • In Mauritania, around two-thirds of the last known colony of monk seals died suddenly between May and July 1997. This colony alone represented half of the remaining survivors of this species, which lives on the beaches and in the underwater caves of the Mediterranean. Various hypotheses could explain the etiology of the reported new disease: it could be caused by a toxin from a seaweed, or from a morbillivirus, related to that previously identified in dolphins.

  • In South Africa, and now in Zimbabwe, the causes of floppy trunk syndrome among adult bull elephants remain a mystery; two affected elephants were equipped with radio-collars in order to monitor the clinical progression of the syndrome more effectively.
  • Botulism continues to kill a large number of wild waterfowl in the United States of America (nearly one million deaths), Canada and southern Europe.

Further information concerning wildlife health:

  • The infectious agent responsible for kerato-conjunctivitis in chamois and ibex has been identified as a Mycoplasma conjunctivae, a bacterium that also infects sheep. Sheep are thought to spread the disease in the mountains during transhumance and to contaminate wild animals through the intermediary of flies. A proposal has been made to vaccinate domestic flocks before taking them up into the high mountain pastures in order to protect wildlife.

  • The conditions for the vaccination of wild animals living both in the wild and in captivity have also been considered for species as varied as the Indian elephant of India and Nepal and the cottontail rabbit of southern Europe. Research is therefore recommended to ensure the efficacy of the planned protocols, as well as the innocuousness of the vaccines for non-targeted species and for the environment.

  • The role of wild animals (especially migratory animals) in the conservation or dissemination of pathogenic agents must be studied very closely, in view of its consequences for the health of domestic animals. A distinction should be made, within the context of international trade, between diseases that remain strictly limited to wild species living in the wild and species that are liable to contaminate livestock.

OIE, the world organisation for animal health, was created in 1924 and has its headquarters in Paris. The Delegates of its 151 Member Countries form the ‘International Committee’, which is supported by the work of four Specialist Commissions and five Regional Commissions. The OIE’s purpose is to inform and advise the Veterinary Services of its Member Countries, in order to contribute to the eradication of animal diseases that are the most dangerous to animals and humans, and to determine the health standards for international trade.

Contact : Maria Zampaglione