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Coordinating activity on avian flu

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CONFIRMATION of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza in Russia and Kazakhstan last month has highlighted concern that the disease might spread further, with, for example, the European Union urging member states to ‘urgently review and intensify’ their surveillance programmes, particularly in migratory waterfowl, and to review contingency plans and local biosecurity arrangements where necessary (VR, September 3, 2005, vol 157, pp 270-271). A meeting of European experts had concluded that the immediate risk to the EU was ‘probably remote or low’ but that there was no room for complacency.

In the UK, DEFRA, which had reviewed its contingency plan in July, said it supported the conclusions reached at the EU meeting and that it was already implementing many of them. Its own assessment indicated that the risk of avian influenza being introduced into the UK by migratory birds was low, but the situation would be kept under review. A working group would be established to advise on surveillance and monitor developments, and DEFRA would be issuing guidance to the poultry industry and to veterinary surgeons about assessing the risk of avian influenza locally. Information about the disease continues to be posted on DEFRA’s website (www.defra.gov.uk), including updated risk assessments from DEFRA’s International Animal Health Division, which prepares the quarterly international disease surveillance summaries that are published in The Veterinary Record (see pp 333-336 of this issue).

The BVA has been quick to respond to developments. Earlier this week, the Association’s Veterinary Policy Group confirmed that it would be establishing an Avian Influenza Advisory Group, made up of representatives of relevant specialist BVA divisions, to help formulate advice on the issue. The aims of the group will be to provide guidance on how the BVA should be helping to alert the profession and the public to key issues regarding avian influenza; to provide guidance on what advice to give to the profession on how to detect and deal with the disease in different avian species; to advise on how the BVA should be working with the Government to help disseminate relevant information to the profession and the public; and to highlight areas where political action is needed. The group will encompass a wide range of expertise, reflecting the breadth of the challenges presented by the disease. It will also be able to call on external advisers where necessary.

One of the first tasks of the new group will be to help finalise a concise briefing note on avian influenza, consolidating basic information likely to be relevant in the UK. From this it should be possible to develop more specific guidance for practitioners, who will have a role to play in surveillance and may also be called on by clients for advice. Much of the concern about avian influenza relates to its possible introduction through small ‘backyard flocks’. The owners of such flocks are unlikely to be in contact with the relatively small number of specialist poultry vets in the UK, and are more likely to seek guidance from their general practitioner, whom they might more normally consult on other species. Good advice relies on sound information and one of the aims of the BVA will be to try to help ensure that appropriate information is disseminated and that practitioners are kept up to date.

The new advisory group will also help the BVA formulate its response to an inquiry being held by the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee. Earlier this summer, the select committee announced that it would be holding a short inquiry into contingency planning for an outbreak of avian flu, as a follow-up to its report ‘Fighting Infection’ published in 2003. That report, based on an inquiry chaired by Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, examined the arrangements in place for the diagnosis, treatment, prevention and control of infectious disease, and made a number of recommendations on how things could be improved. Although primarily concerned with infectious disease in humans, it drew attention to the risk of emerging zoonotic diseases and many of its findings were also relevant in the veterinary field, particularly with regard to surveillance and interdisciplinary collaboration (VR, July 26, 2003, vol 153, pp 97, 98).

The select committee’s latest inquiry is primarily concerned with contingency planning for the possibility of a human influenza pandemic; however, the answers to some of the questions posed in its call for evidence*, such as those relating to risk assessment, will clearly require a veterinary input. Written evidence has been invited by September 26. The committee plans to take oral evidence in October and aims to publish its report by the end of the year. The Science and Technology Select Committee has a history of highlighting issues where attention is needed, and the outcome will clearly be of interest.

A key aspect of efforts to control infectious diseases is that activities must be coordinated internationally, nationally and right through to local level. An important aim of the BVA’s initiative is to try to ensure the best use is made of available expertise, with appropriate involvement of practitioners on the ground.

* Available at www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/lords_s_t_select/pandemic.cfm

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