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Pharmacists hasten vulture extinction

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Callie JonesRecent research suggests that more than a third of India’s community pharmacies are contributing to the probable extinction of three South Asian species of vulture. They are doing so by continuing to sell the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac for use in cattle, even though such sales were banned five years ago. The drug is highly toxic to vultures of the Gyps genus, which ingest it when feeding on bovine carcasses.

In just a few years, the use of diclofenac in cattle has driven the three species to the brink of extinction. Numbered in their millions as recently as the 1990s, the Indian (or long-billed) vulture (G indicus), the slender-billed vulture (G tenuirostris) and the white-rumped vulture (G bengalensis) have each been reduced to just a few thousand. All three are now classified as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

After the cause of the vultures’ decline had been identified, veterinary sales of diclofenac were banned in 2006 in India, Pakistan and Nepal. Farmers were encouraged to use meloxicam, an alternative NSAID that does not show the same toxic effects. India strengthened its diclofenac ban in 2008, with contravention punishable by imprisonment.

However, a recent survey of more than 250 pharmacies in 11 Indian states found that 36 per cent were still selling diclofenac for use in cattle. Instead of the banned veterinary products, they sell human formulations in large vials that are clearly not appropriate for human use but are convenient for large animals.

To add to the problem, ketoprofen, which has also been shown to be deadly to vultures but has still not been banned, was on sale for veterinary use in 29 per cent of the pharmacies.

British pharmacists outraged by this irresponsible behaviour may wish to protest to bodies such as the Indian Pharmaceutical Association (www.ipapharma.org; email ipacentre@ipapharma.org) and the Pharmaceutical Society of India (www.psiindia.org; email psi.indial2006@gmail.com).

But we may be too late.

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