Biodiversity loss is making us sick

April 24th, 2008 - 12:26 am ICT by admin  

By Joydeep Gupta
Singapore, April 23 (IANS) All ulcer patients lost a promising treatment when a frog went extinct. Understanding how bears hibernate can save thousands of people from death by kidney failure, but bears are in danger of extinction. The world is losing biodiversity at its peril, says UN Under Secretary General and UN Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner.

Providing glimpses to the media from a forthcoming book on the health effects of biodiversity loss at the B4E (Business for the Environment) summit here Wednesday, Steiner said: “It’s a tragedy that the world isn’t understanding the value of biodiversity”.

He illustrated the effect of biodiversity loss on medicine development through the example of the southern gastric brooding frog of Australia. The frogs raised their young in their stomachs, the organ which is so acidic in all other animals, including humans, that any foetus would soon be digested.

Scientists were just finding out that the baby frogs produced some unique combination of substances to save themselves in their parent’s stomachs when both species of the gastric brooding frog went extinct.

That combination could have helped treat millions who suffer from ulcers, Steiner pointed out. The figure of patients is 25 million in the US alone.

The book, “Sustaining Life”, will be launched in May at the Convention on Biological Diversity summit in Germany. Its key authors are Eric Chivian and Aaron Bernstein from the Centre for Health and the Global Environment in Harvard Medical School.

The authors list the various medicines that can be developed from plants and animals to make their plea to conserve biodiversity.

When bears hibernate, they store their own waste within themselves for months. Humans cannot do that for more than a few hours. If scientists can find out how the bears do it, thousands suffering from kidney failure could be treated.

If humans lie in bed for five months, they lose most of their bone mass. But bears actually gain it during hibernation. Knowing how they do that can help thousands more - those who are bedridden and those who suffer from osteoporosis.

But, Steiner pointed out, nine species of bear are in danger - including the polar bear, the giant panda and the Asiatic black bear. The problem is worsened because bears are killed for their body parts in traditional medicinal systems of China, Japan and Thailand, and there is a thriving black market.

“The current rate of species loss is unprecedented,” Steiner said. “It’s 1-2,000 times the natural rate. Climate change is accelerating this process further by changing whole ecosystems.”

“Our entire economies are based on our current ecosystems. If they change, everything changes. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) had over 16,000 species on its Red List of endangered species last year,” Steiner said,

Steiner called upon over 190 countries gathering for the biodiversity summit next month to give more impetus to conservation.

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