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DISEASES investigated by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) are often in the news, and the past 12 months have been no exception. The VLA’s annual review for 2004/05, which has recently been published,* notes that it is, among other things, a world reference laboratory for avian influenza. As a result, it has been heavily involved in supporting a number of investigations into the outbreaks of avian influenza in Asia. As this issue of The Veterinary Record went to press, the VLA was in the process of determining the subtype of the virus responsible for an outbreak in the Balikesir region of Turkey. If, as was suspected, this turned out to be a highly pathogenic strain, it would bring the disease close to the borders of the EU. The EU had responded to the suspected outbreak by imposing a ban on all imports of live birds and unprocessed feathers from Turkey. In the UK, DEFRA announced that it was stepping up surveillance for avian influenza viruses in waterbirds, through a survey involving ornithological and conservation groups. Noting that it had a detailed contingency plan in place to limit the spread and eradicate any potential outbreak in poultry, DEFRA said that the risk of avian influenza spreading to the UK from migratory birds was still low, but that it was important to maintain vigilance (see p 458 of this issue).

For the time being, attention is focused on avian influenza, but this is by no means the only ‘high-profile’ disease on which the VLA is active. It is also, for example, an international reference laboratory for transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) and, earlier this year, carried out tests confirming BSE in a cow in the USA (VR, July 2, 2005, vol 157, p 2). The annual review gives a useful overview of the VLA’s TSE programme, as well as programmes on statutory and exotic bacterial diseases, statutory and exotic viral diseases, and food and environmental safety.

The success of any scientific enterprise largely depends on the expertise of its staff but, in terms of facilities, there was an important development in May, with the opening of a new laboratory on the VLA’s site at Weybridge. The laboratory, named after Sir Stewart Stockman, chief veterinary officer and director of research when the Central Veterinary Laboratory was first established at Weybridge in 1917, will include ‘state of the art’ facilities for high throughput serological testing, and has an innovative design that enables switching between animal disease containment levels 2 and 4, depending on the type of work being undertaken. In the words of the VLA’s chief executive, Professor Steve Edwards, it ‘will hugely enhance the UK’s contingency readiness for major animal disease outbreaks’, as well as providing ‘outstanding’ facilities for work on bovine tuberculosis (TB).

The annual review summarises work being undertaken on bovine TB, covering areas such as diagnostics, vaccine development, pathogenesis in cattle and disease epidemiology, as well as on a collaborative international project aimed at determining the level of TB in humans that has been derived from cattle, and how this might be reduced.

A section on the VLA’s Emerging Disease and Welfare programme makes interesting reading, not least because it provides a concise summary of some of the trends identified in the VLA’s monthly disease surveillance reports which appear in The Veterinary Record (most recently, VR, October 1, 2005, vol 157, pp 399-402). The programme aims to supply high quality information on the disease status of farmed livestock and birds. Knowledge of the ‘background’ health status of animals is vital to surveillance and, as discussed at the recent BVA Congress (see pp 461-464 of this issue), surveillance for non-statutory as well as statutory diseases is necessary if trends are to be identified and diseases controlled. The Government’s Veterinary Surveillance Strategy recognises that veterinary practitioners play an important role in surveillance and have ‘a key role in the sifting and reporting of surveillance data, and interpreting the implications of surveillance outputs for their clients’ (VR, October 25, 2003, vol 153, pp 509-510). This is undoubtedly correct but it remains worrying that, two years after the strategy was published, more than one speaker at the BVA Congress expressed concern that it was becoming increasingly difficult to fulfil this role as less time was spent on farms. Ways must be found to solve this problem, and innovative solutions may be needed.

Taken as a whole, the VLA’s annual report highlights the importance of research, surveillance, improved diagnostics and collaboration in the fight against disease – the very themes highlighted at the BVA Congress. Not all of the diseases being investigated have as high a profile as avian influenza, BSE or bovine TB. However, they are no less important for that and it is important to remain flexible as one can never quite be sure where the next threat will come from. The activities in which the VLA is engaged, and the disease challenges to be faced, seem likely to ensure that it will continue to be at the centre of things for some time to come.

    Footnotes

    • * Veterinary Laboratories Agency Annual Review 2004/05. Available from the VLA, New Haw, Addlestone, Surrey KT15 3NB, telephone 01932 341111, fax 01932 347046

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