Drug being purchased by farmers illegally to treat their cattle: study

Over a third of the Indian pharmacies continue to sell to livestock farmers the banned killer drug, diclofenac, responsible for the dramatic fall in vulture population in the country.

A study published in the Oryx, a leading international scientific journal of conservation, and reported by BirdLife International, has found that the widely-available diclofenac was being purchased by farmers illegally in conveniently large bottles to treat their cattle. On the other hand, the drug formulated for veterinary use too continues to be manufactured after a ban was declared in 2006 owing to its toxicity to “critically endangered” vultures.

Diclofenac is responsible for bringing three South Asian species of Gyps vultures to the brink of extinction. The population crash was first noted in the late 1990s.

Nepal and Pakistan also banned the drug in 2006. Further measures in India, in 2008, placed additional restrictions on diclofenac for animal use, with contravention punishable with imprisonment.

The research was conducted in over 250 veterinary and general pharmacy shops in 11 Indian States from November 2007 to June 2010 and the report was published in the journal recently. The surveyors asked if they could buy non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for treating cattle. Diclofenac was recorded in 36 per cent of shops, the study noted.

Lead author and principal conservation scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (BirdLife in the United Kingdom), Richard Cuthbert said: “The ban is still quite easy to avoid because human formulations are for sale in large vials, which are clearly not intended for human use. Preventing misuse of human diclofenac remains the main challenge in halting the decline of threatened vultures.”

Encouragingly, the research also shows an increase in meloxicam (in 70 per cent of pharmacies), a drug with very similar therapeutic effects to diclofenac on cattle, but which has been proven to be safe for vultures.

Ketoprofen, an alternative that has been tested and shown to be deadly to vultures, has still not been banned.

It was on sale for veterinary use in 29 per cent of the pharmacies.

The report's co-author, Vibhu Prakash of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), partner of BirdLife, said: “While the increase in meloxicam brands and availability is encouraging, firm action at the government level against pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies that are breaking the law by manufacturing and selling diclofenac for veterinary use is urgently needed if we are to save vultures from extinction.”