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Illnesses from the trunk

As soon as he waved it out, he looked somehow suspicious. The little truck that was just crossing the border from Austria to Italy slowly pulls to the side of the road. The air is cool, it is a typically clear December day in the northeastern part of the Friuli Venezia Giulia region. “Police control, documents please.” As you approach, the white truck looks like any other: inconspicuous, and that's why it's worth taking a closer look at. Passport in one hand, the next slowly wanders over the knob of the back door. When opening the door, the police officers, who are standing together in a group in front of the car, are met by a pungent stench. A torrent of feather dust swirls through the air and ends up lying on the street floor. An excited, high-pitched shouting and chattering is the first thing the police officers hear. With the stuffy warmth of the interior, the certainty is now mixed: you typed correctly. Poison green, bright yellow and striking blue parrots look out at the police officers. Singing lively, the animals try to move, but the little space in the cage hardly allows them to turn around. The winter sun shines on their beak close together. 

Change of location. A few days later, Francesco (* name changed) is in bed. The initial difficulty in getting air has rapidly deteriorated. The high fever and body aches don't make it easier to cope with the lung problems. An undetected infection can lead to death in people, he now knows. Psittacosis is the name of the disease that the customs policeman contracted. The flu-like symptoms initially made it difficult for the treating doctor to find out what his immune system was fighting with. After his work colleagues got just as sick, the blood test showed what was already feared: the pathogen is called Chlamydophila psittaci. Brought by the approximately 3000 sick parrots and budgies that were found during the last illegal animal transport. 

"The police officers got severe pneumonia at the time, and the disease affects the respiratory tract," explains Marie-Christin Rossmann, veterinarian and head of the infectious diseases in Carinthia. International pet trade is her specialty. Back then, in winter 2015, the parrot disease was the last drop that broke the barrel. At the border crossing near Travis, in the Italian-Austrian-Slovenian border triangle in the Canal Valley, customs officers often discovered transports that were not at all compliant with animal welfare law. Young puppies separated from their mother far too early, kittens, sick budgies. Animals, all of which were to find new owners when they were sold from the car. At that time Austria and Italy joined forces as project partners, and in 2017 they founded the Biocrime project, which was co-financed by the EU. "70 percent of people have absolutely no idea what zoonoses are and how dangerous they can be for people," says Rossmann, who is the head of the Interreg Bio-Crime project for the state of Carinthia in Austria. Infectious diseases like parrot disease or coronavirus can be transmitted from animals to humans and vice versa, she explains. Customs officials in particular are at risk when transporting animals if they search buses or cars for illegal substances or souvenirs. But parents who want to give their children a pet are also increasingly coming into contact with the diseases. Since the Internet is booming for animal purchases, according to the expert, a particularly large number of people would fall for the prices. "1000 euros is already a cheap price for a pedigree dog," says the animal welfare expert. Below that, it would be impossible to end up with the costs of care, vaccination and deworming. Serious breeders would always take the mother with them and could show a parent's pedigree. "Many people abroad buy the particularly small dogs out of pity, because they look even more in need of protection and cost only 300 euros anyway," said Rossmann. A scam that works, even though it is illegal to buy young animals that are less than eight weeks old. As a result of the rapid withdrawal of breast milk and the often poor hygienic conditions, the new family members are often ill for their entire life. 

The coronavirus did not first show how dangerous zoonoses are. Animal-borne diseases can cause great harm, including 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. Because the disease is 100 percent fatal. Often the illegally brought animals are not vaccinated. Bacterial diseases in particular would often be brought across borders. The illegally entered animals are often sick, many of them have parasites, and even cats can have salmonella and transmit it to humans. “We started with the children”. The EU-funded project informed hundreds of children and young people about the dangers in school workshops, thus creating basic knowledge for the next generation. A total of 1000 police officers were trained and networked with one another. The EU project has created an enormous supra-regional network characterized by solidarity that supports itself in the fight against animal trafficking. The criminal investigation department is more broadly positioned and can intervene faster across borders.

Whether the animals are intentionally brought sick across borders? That would be a completely new form of terrorism, according to the infection expert. “If you want to damage 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. With a five percent mortality rate that would have meant that 150 people would have died, according to the projection of the team of experts. The main goal of the project is not only solidarity in the case of health risks and increasing knowledge about transnational organized crime, but also the principle of “one health”. Since the spread of zoonoses like the coronavirus will continue to pose economic and health risks in the future, the project would like to strengthen the work between veterinarians and human physicians even more. This is the only way that unknown dangers can be identified more quickly in the future and fought together, according to the expert. 

"Zoonoses are responsible for the largest pandemics in human history," says Paolo Zucca, project manager of the Interreg project. Contrary to popular belief, the spread of diseases transmitted by mammals to humans is higher in North America, Europe and Russia than in Africa, Australia and South America, according to the veterinarian's statement on the official website of the project, which will be continuously updated during the pandemic in early 2020 has been. Before COVID-19, the best-known zoonotic pandemics were Zika virus, SARS, West Nile fever, plague and Ebola.

Equipped with a mask and gloves, Francesco waves a black truck to the side of the road. It's July 2020, and after the lockdown barely allowed illegal animal transports for a short period of time, the borders at the triangle are now open again. Since his project training, the customs officer knows exactly how to recognize sick animals, how he can protect himself and his colleagues at work, and he knows the legal principles. The experts are now working together in the Bio-crime Center: It is the first Veterinary Medical Intelligence and Research Center to be established in Europe. 

Author: Anastasia Lopez

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Written by Anastasia Lopez

Anastasia Lopez is a tri-media news journalist. The Roman woman has lived, studied and worked in Vienna, Berlin, Cologne, Linz, Rome and London.
She worked as an "on air" reporter and digital journalist for Hitradio Ö3 and for "ZiB" magazine (ORF1). In 2020 she was one of the "30 best under 30" (The Austrian Journalist) and won the European journalism award "Megalizzi-Niedzielski-Preis" for her work in Brussels.

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