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Diseases without borders

...Be careful which pets you import

By Dr Adana Mahase-Gibson

Trinidad and Tobago has territorial borders that are open to legal trade and travel. Activity is regulated and guarded but, like a sieve, many things slip through.

Apart from guns, ammunition and drugs, we are indulging in a vibrant trade of the most dominant life forms on earth—microbes. Whether they travel in your nose when you come back from Miami, in cheese shipped from New Zealand, or in the flea on your friend’s new imported dog, bacteria, viruses and fungi are world travellers in our global society and, for the most part, they don’t have passports.

It’s not just T&T that has borders. From a health perspective, our bodies are full of borders. Membranes like the skin let things in and out. Our bodies’ borders are set up for regulated trade; we eat, breathe and defecate. But, like a country’s borders, sometimes something undesirable slips across.

Here’s the thing; activity across our national borders is connected to activity across our bodies’ borders.

Borders and the Illegal

Animal Trade

Wildlife trafficking is a global problem; third behind drug and arms trafficking. Dealers in T&T boast on being able to get any animal your heart desires: turtles, macaws, toucans, amazon parrots, snakes, bull finches, picoplats, monkeys and pounds of wild meat. It’s not just wildlife. Also popular is the illegal trade in pedigree dogs and livestock. Some folks proudly announce that their dog was a special order from ‘down the main’. One can custom order bulldogs, bichons, pugs and even huskies for sled rides on T&T’s snowy days.

What smugglers and potential owners don’t fully appreciate is that, apart from committing a crime, they could be contributing to a major health crisis. Alive or dead these illegal animals are host to pathogens that have the potential to wreak havoc on us and our local ecosystems. Our porous national borders are connected to our bodies’ biological borders.

Zoonotic Diseases

Dengue, avian influenza, chikungunya, lyme disease, rabies, yellow fever, leptospirosis and leishmania have something in common. They are pathogens originating from other animal species. Globally, approximately 60 per cent of emerging diseases are zoonotic. The WHO defines zoonoses as diseases or infections that are naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans and vice-versa. Dealing with pandemics is not a cheap undertaking. Remember the SARS outbreak in 2003? The estimated cost to the global economy was between US$40-50 billion.

Lyme and rabies are diseases that affect dogs and both are zoonotic; they can spread to humans. For the moment, T&T is currently dog rabies free. Official reports also state that our local dogs are free from Lyme disease. But a few ticks on a cute pug fresh off the boat from Uncle Pedro in Cedros could change that. Given our massive illegal animal trade, there is a high risk that diseases like Lyme will soon be a part of our lives.

When importing or exporting domestic and wild animals, permits and permission from relevant authorities are critical. For example, a dog from the US needs ‘papers’ to travel to T&T including a health certificate from a US veterinarian. This is an attempt to reduce the risk of foreign diseases being introduced to our local dog population. These regulations are there to help us guard against potential parasites and diseases. Avoiding health and safety checks is tantamount to begging someone with a cold to sneeze right up in your face. It’s foolish and reckless.

Actions have consequences

We are completely dependent on healthy animals and healthy ecosystems, yet every day many of us risk one thing money can’t buy. Our health is a collective responsibility and not just the burden of the State. We must get involved. For domestic animals, ask for importation permits and a document trail when purchasing pedigree breeds. Check registered kennel clubs. Better yet, adopt a pothound.

Stop buying baby parrots you know have been smuggled from the Amazon or songbirds from the main because they could win a competition. Report suspicious pet stores trading in illegal wildlife to game wardens and the Wildlife Division. Wildlife officials in particular are working diligently. Get to know them. T&T is a small place. Ask questions and demand answers. Good health is everyone’s business.

Dr Adana Mahase-Gibson is a project management professional and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. She works in the field of sustainable development with communities, government, businesses and NGOs in Trinidad and Tobago under the banner of Ecohealth.

Useful numbers for reporting illegal wildlife activity -

Wildlife Hotline 800-HALT (4258)

Forestry Division - 622-3217/5214/7476

Ministry of the Environment and Water

Resources — 623-3158
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