October 25, 2005


Habitat buffer for humans is less expensive than the cost of deaths,

OSLO, Norway -- Better protection for the diversity of the planet's
creatures and plants could help shield humans from diseases like AIDS,
Ebola or bird flu and save billions of dollars in health care costs,
researchers said on Tuesday.

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 international group Diversitas said in
a statement.

"Preventing emerging diseases through biodiversity conservation is far
more cost effective than developing vaccines to combat them later,"
they added.

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. The United Nations estimates
that $15 billion will be needed for prevention, treatment and care in
2006 alone.

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 organization.

She said China had to employ people in some regions to pollinate apple
orchards because the overuse of pesticides had killed off bees. "It
maybe takes 10 people to do the work of two beehives," she told

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.

Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.