Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Viagra helps out endangered species

Switch to western medicine may save certain animals from slaughter.

Carina Dennis

The use of Viagra may be benefiting some endangered species. The suggestion comes from a survey showing that traditional Chinese-medicine users are switching from medicines based on animal products to 'the little blue pill' to treat erectile dysfunction.

A recent survey shows that the western treatment for this sexual problem seems to be replacing more traditional medicines, including potions made from seal penises and reindeer antler velvet. This could be having a knock-on effect on the welfare of those animals, scientists say. However, conservationists largely remain unconvinced.

When Viagra first emerged as a powerful drug in the world of pharmaceuticals, many speculated that it might help to protect certain animals. In 2002, William von Hippel, a psychologist from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and his brother Frank von Hippel, a biologist from the University of Alaska in Anchorage, reported that the trade in both seal penises and reindeer velvet had gone down1.

But others argued that this might have had more to do with the Asian economic crash of 1998 than the wonders of the little blue pill. TRAFFIC, an international wildlife conservation organization, refuted the claim that Viagra was to thank.

Switch to Viagra

Now the von Hippel brothers show that the trade in Viagra is on the rise. In a study funded by Pfizer, the manufacturer of Viagra, they surveyed 256 Chinese men, aged 50-76 years, who were receiving treatment at a clinic in Hong Kong2.

Of these men, 35 said they had previously tried, or were currently trying, traditional medicines to treat erectile dysfunction, and at least eight had switched to taking Viagra. Of the 29 men who reported trying Viagra, 16 of whom were still current users, none said they had switched (or reverted back) to using more traditional cures.

This one-way street was only observed for erectile dysfunction. For other conditions such as arthritis, indigestion and gout, traditional remedies were still favoured.

"I think there is a different response for erectile dysfunction compared with other ailments, because traditional remedies just don't work for that problem," says David Campbell, a conservation biologist at Grinnell College in Iowa.

Tradition overturned

Another reason, adds William von Hippel, may be that men are more willing to put aside millennia of belief in traditional remedies when the complaint has a larger impact on their quality of life. "Men really want to fix it quickly. If you have a headache, you care, but not to the same magnitude," he says.

But conservation groups caution against extrapolating this trend in Viagra usage to conclusions about endangered animals. "I don't see Viagra as having any effect on species conservation because endangered species are used for a wide range of products aside from treating impotence," says Glenn Sant, director of TRAFFIC Oceania. "Viagra really clouds the discussion of species conservation," he says.

He adds that conservation groups encourage traditional medicine consumers to use non-threatened species.


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