Guest blog by Chris Bowden, RSPB Globally Threatened Species Officer & SAVE Programme Manager based in Bangalore, India

At last! Indian Health Ministry bans multi-dose vials of human formulations of diclofenac, which have been responsible for the death of tens of millions of Asia’s vultures! 

The painkiller was banned for veterinary use in India in 2006 because of its lethal effects on vultures that fed on the carcasses of treated cattle and buffaloes, but human formulations of the drug have been illegally produced and used to treat livestock since then.

The ban sees diclofenac production now restricted to human formulations in a single 3ml dose.
The presence of this notification on the Health Ministry website has been something we’ve been eagerly awaiting for well over two years now. It has been a top priority at all the Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) meetings. BNHS vulture programme staff have been busily keeping up the pressure in Delhi and in various other ways ever since an inter-ministry meeting nearly four years ago. Then without any fuss, today, there it was. Its been a long and sometimes bewildering process, and we’ve often wondered why it hasn’t happened before – but then again, like the ban in 2006, it is a great credit to the Drug Controller and Indian authorities that vulture conservation is taken sufficiently seriously for such measures to be taken.

Critically Endangered Oriental white-backed vultures are expected to increase in response to the Indian government’s new ban on multi-dose vials of diclofenac. Photo by Mahseer Conservancy.
The gazetted notification restricting human formulations of injectable diclofenac to ‘single unit dose pack only’ should mean that the main source of injectable diclofenac is stopped. The drug will become a lot less accessible to those who might illegally use it and more expensive; thereby, further tipping the balance towards using the safe alternative, meloxicam, instead.
The notification takes immediate effect (dated 17 July 2015), and is legally binding. From a recent publication Avian scavengers and the threat from veterinary pharmaceuticals, Cuthbert et al. (2014) we know that diclofenac use by veterinarians has declined considerably since the ban of veterinary formulations in 2006, but unfortunately there is still widespread illegal use. Without further steps such as this, vultures remain under serious threat.

Pharmaceutical companies circumvented the ban on veterinary diclofenac by producing multi-dose vials of human formulations for veterinary purposes. Photo of large vials of drugs by Mahseer Conservancy.
Ever since SAVE was formed in 2011, it has requested manufacturing companies to cease production of the larger vials - 3ml is more than sufficient for a single human dose, but the majority are ten times this size and an ideal dose for treating livestock. Only three companies voluntarily ceased manufacture ahead of this regulation, whilst over seventy companies in India ignored these requests. Health officials do not consider the ban to pose any serious problems for the legitimate use of diclofenac for humans.
We think that this step will tip the balance in favour of the vultures. We see it as an essential step ahead of proposed releases of captive bred vultures and hope the dedicated Vulture Safe Zone teams around the region can help capitalise on this to get diclofenac levels down sufficiently to allow vulture populations to recover.

Meanwhile, we can then focus our attention on releases and preventing another vulture toxic drug taking diclofenac's place. But for now, lets celebrate this important milestone today, just ahead of International Vulture Awareness Day on 5th September!