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Right theme, right time

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BIOSECURITY formed the theme of the first day of the BVA Congress in London last week and no one attending the plenary Wooldridge Memorial Lecture on September 30 can have been left in any doubt of its relevance. In an address entitled ‘No longer an island – the threat of emerging diseases and epidemics in the interconnected global community’, Professor Paul Gibbs, of the University of Florida, gave a masterful overview of the disease challenges confronting us in the 21st century, clearly demonstrating why biosecurity is so necessary. In a shrinking world, in which it is said that, as a result of air travel, no two cities are more than 24 hours apart, the challenges are increasing, and Professor Gibbs identified a number of factors contributing to the ‘rash’ of emerging and re-emerging livestock disease outbreaks around the world over the past few years, including BSE, foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza and others. The cost of such outbreaks to the world’s economies had been estimated at more than US$80 billion.

Contributory factors included accelerated global trading and tourism, faster transportation (which increased the potential for disease spread as disease incubation times exceeded the duration of journeys), exposure to new pathogens as a result of habitat destruction and human population pressures, and intensification of farming. Many of the emerging diseases were, he pointed out, zoonotic, and tackling them required an interdisciplinary approach.

Professor Gibbs outlined the lessons learned as a result of the major disease events of the past few years, as well as from other disasters, both natural and man-made, and the actions initiated as a result. In the USA, the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the UK in 2001 had led to a ‘reality check’ on the USA’s own level of preparedness for a serious animal disease outbreak and, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, infectious disease control was very much seen as a national security issue. To an extent, problems were being recognised and action was being taken. However, there was no doubt that, internationally, more could be done, and there was certainly no room for complacency. He remarked: ‘It has been said that the earthquake that led to the Asian tsunami in 2004 literally rocked the Earth’s rotation for a millisecond. In the 21st century, emerging zoonotic diseases have the potential to devastate the global human population, the effect of which could be to “rock” the Earth for a century or more.’

Biosecurity is a cornerstone of defence against disease and, as other sessions at the congress made clear, needs to be applied at international, national and local levels. However, it also became clear that it means different things to different people and needs to be applied differently at those levels; in addition, different measures must apply to different diseases and species. In this sense, it is a bit of a ‘catch-all’ word, which could benefit from being more clearly defined. The congress provided some useful insights into what biosecurity means in practical terms, whether at EU borders, for EU member states, or for veterinarians and farmers, as well as for the owners of companion animals and horses.

The importance of veterinary surveillance was rightly emphasised, as was the need to have measures in place to deal with disease outbreaks when they occur. Regarding surveillance, the point was well made that the price of freedom from disease, as Thomas Jefferson said of freedom itself, is eternal vigilance, although this does raise the question of precisely who should be on the look out for what. The point was also made that keeping infectious disease at bay becomes easier if there is less of it around in the first place. A fortress mentality alone is not enough, and a proactive approach will always be necessary, globally, nationally and on farms.

In his welcome address, the then BVA President, Dr Bob McCracken, remarked that responsibility for biosecurity is a joint one that must be shared by all who have an interest in animals, including DEFRA, the State Veterinary Service, those who trade in animals, the veterinary profession, and all animal keepers and owners. The matter of shared responsibility – and the importance of working in partnership, as advocated in the UK’s Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (AHWS) – in itself provided an important theme at the congress, which was notable for the constructive way in which the issues were addressed. At the same time, however, the meeting indicated some of the obstacles – political, financial, structural and cultural – that are making it difficult to get the AHWS off the ground. Overcoming those obstacles will require the full participation of everyone involved and it was, perhaps, one of the more surprising aspects of the meeting that, although present and clearly interested in the proceedings, representatives of DEFRA contributed relatively little to the debates.

Reports of some of the congress sessions appear in this issue of The Veterinary Record; others will appear over the next few weeks. Despite the stark message, the mood of the meeting was positive, which is important given the extent of the challenges that need to be addressed.

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