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[BEIJING] Authorities in China have launched a nationwide programme to protect public health by monitoring outbreaks of disease among wild animals.

The State Forest Administration will set up 150 observation stations nationwide and publicise any outbreaks of animal disease that could threaten human health.

Launching the programme on Tuesday (15 March), Zhao Xuemin, the administration's deputy director, said monitoring was important because of the link between animal diseases and human health.

Migratory birds have, for instance, been shown to carry the bird flu virus that has killed 46 people this year. And the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has been detected in mammals called civets, which are eaten as a delicacy in some parts of China (see 'China culls civets in bid to stop SARS').

Preventing epidemics among wild animals would also protect the country's biodiversity, Zhao added.

The observation stations will be set up in significant wildlife habitats, along animal migration routes, and in places with records of frequent disease outbreaks among wild species.

At each station, wildlife will be caught and tested for disease. If researchers find a disease than can infect people, the State Forest Administration will inform the public of the threat. 

Reporting the risk of epidemics was made a legal requirement when China revised its laws after outbreaks of SARS and bird flu (see 'New rules require open reporting of epidemics in China').

Wei Fuwen, a senior researcher at the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, says that monitoring animal diseases in the wild is more effective than doing surveys of wildlife in markets because China has banned the trade in most wild animals.

Since China's SARS outbreak, consumer demand for wild animals has diminished, making the trade ban easier to implement.

Hao Ming, a public relations officer at the State Forest Administration says funding for the programme has not been finalised, but even without it, the administration plans to push ahead with the work using its own resources.

China's cabinet has yet to confirm how long the programme will operate for.

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