Disease that spreads in car-boots
by Anastasia Lopez
November 1, 2020
Even as it was being waved on, the small van looked vaguely suspicious. It had just crossed the border from Austria into Italy, pulls slowly to the side of the road.
The air is cool, it’s a typically clear December day in the north-easternmost part of the Friuli Venezia Giulia region. “Police check, documents please.” As we approach, the white van looks like any other: inconspicuous, and just for that reason worth a closer look.
Passport in one hand, the other hand slowly feels over the knob of the back door. As they open it, the policemen, standing together in a group in front of the car, are met by a pungent stench. A shower of feather dust swirls through the air and finally comes to rest on the tarmac.
Shrill, excited shouting and chattering is the first thing to reach the policemen’s ears. Mixed with the stuffy warmth of the interior is now the certainty: they have guessed correctly. Poisonous green, bright yellow, striking-looking blue parrots look at the policemen.
Singing lively, the animals try to move, but the tiny space in the cage hardly allows them to turn around. Closely packed together, the wintry sun shines on their beaks.
Change of scene. A few days later, Francesco (*name changed) is lying in bed. The initial difficulty in catching his breath has rapidly deteriorated. The high fever and aching limbs do not make it any easier to endure the lung trouble.
An undetected infection can lead to death in humans, he now knows. Psittacosis, that is the name of the disease the customs policeman has contracted. The flu-like symptoms made it difficult at first for the doctor treating him to find out what his immune system was struggling with.
After his work colleagues fell ill in the same way, the blood test proving what was already feared: The pathogen is Chlamydophila psittaci. Brought over by the approximately 3000 sick parrots and budgies found during the last illegal animal transport.
“The policemen got severe pneumonia at that time, the disease affects the respiratory tract badly,” explains Marie-Christin Rossmann, veterinarian and head of infectious diseases in Carinthia. International animal trade is her area of specialisation.
Back then, in the winter of 2015, the parrot disease was the straw that broke the camel’s back. At the border crossing near Travis, in the Italian-Austrian-Slovenian border triangle in the Canal Valley, customs police frequently discovered transports that were not at all compliant with animal protection laws.
Young puppies separated from their mothers far too early, kittens, sick budgies. All of these animals were sold out of a car to find new owners. So Austria and Italy joined forces as project partners at the time, and in 2017 founded the Biocrime project,co-funded by the EU. “70 percent of people have absolutely no idea what zoonoses are and how dangerous they can be for humans,” says Rossmann, who heads the Interreg project Bio-Crime for the Austrian province of Carinthia.
Infectious diseases such as parrot disease or coronavirus can be transmitted from animals to humans, and vice versa, she explains. Customs officers in particular are exposed to the risk during animal transports when they search buses or cars for illegal substances or souvenirs, she says.
But parents who want to give their children a pet are also increasingly coming into contact with the diseases. Since the Internet market for animals is booming, many people are tempted by the prices, according to the expert. “1000 euros is already a cheap price for a pedigree dog,” says the animal welfare expert. I
t would be impossible to pay less than that with the care costs, vaccination and de-worming costs. Reputable breeders would also always take the dam with them, and could show a parent pedigree. “Many people buy the particularly small dogs abroad out of pity, because they look even more in need of protection and cost only 300 euros anyway,” says Rossmann.
A scam that works even though it is forbidden by law to buy young animals that are younger than eight weeks old. Due to the rapid withdrawal from their mother’s milk and the often poor hygienic conditions, the new family members are then often sick for the rest of their lives.
The Coronavirus has not only shown how dangerous zoonoses are. The diseases transmitted by animals can cause great damage, even to humans. “If the disease breaks out, that’s it. Very few people know, for example, that 60,000 people die of rabies every year,” says the veterinarian.
The disease is 100 per cent fatal. The illegally-transported animals are often not vaccinated. Bacterial diseases in particular are often brought across borders. The illegally imported animals are often sick, many of them have parasites, even cats can have salmonella and transmit it to humans.
“That’s where we started with the children”. The EU-funded project has informed hundreds of children and young people about the dangers in school workshops, thus creating a basic knowledge in the next generation. A total of 1000 police officers were trained and networked with each other.
The EU project has created an enormous supra-regional network, characterised by solidarity, which provides mutual support in the fight against animal trafficking. The criminal police are thus more broadly positioned and can intervene more quickly across national borders.
Are sick animals being deliberately brought across borders? That would be a completely new form of terrorism, says the infectious disease expert. “If you want to harm a country on purpose, that would be a possibility”. It would have cost the Italian state 35 million euros in hospital costs if the infected parrots had actually been sold at the time. At a five percent mortality rate, this would have meant that 150 people would have died, according to the expert team’s projection.
The main goal of the project is not only solidarity in dealing with health risks and increasing knowledge about transnational organised crime, but also the principle of “one health”.
Since the spread of zoonoses such as the coronavirus will continue to pose economic and health risks in the future, the project seeks to strengthen even further cooperation between veterinarians and human doctors. This is the only way that still unknown dangers can be recognised more quickly in the future and combated together, says the expert.
“Zoonoses are responsible for the biggest pandemics in the history of mankind,” says Paolo Zucca, project manager of the Interreg project. Contrary to popular belief, the spread of diseases transmitted to humans by mammals is higher in North America, Europe, and Russia than in Africa, Australia and South America, according to the veterinarian’s statement on the project’s official homepage, which was continuously updated during the pandemic in early 2020. Before COVID-19, the best-known zoonotic pandemics were the Zika virus, SARS, West Nile fever, plague, and Ebola.
Wearing a mask and gloves, Francesco waves a black truck to the side of the road. It is July 2020, and after the lock-down allowed hardly any illegal animal transport for a short time, the borders at the border triangle are now open again.
Since his project training, the customs police officer now knows exactly how to recognise sick animals, how to protect himself and his colleagues at work, and knows the legal basics. Because the experts now work together in the Bio-crime Centre, it’s the first Veterinary Medical Intelligence and Research Centre to be established in Europe.