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ON Monday it will be five years to the day since foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) was confirmed in pigs in an Essex abattoir, providing the first indication of the epidemic that was to dominate events for the rest of 2001. By the time it was detected and movement controls imposed, the disease had been widely disseminated and the extent of the crisis soon became clear.No one involved with the UK FMD outbreak of 2001 is likely to forget the experience, and the political, social and economic ramifications were profound.As well as being the cause of much soul searching at home, the UK's experience led to a rethink on animal disease control policies internationally. The mood was adequately summed up by the then EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, Mr David Byrne, who, speaking at a conference on FMD at the end of 2001, remarked, ‘It is simply inconceivable that we could ever allow a repeat of the crisis that occurred this year.’
In the UK, an early political casualty of FMD was the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which, at the height of the crisis, was subsumed into the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Since then, DEFRA has been the ‘lead department’ on animal health, responsible for applying the lessons learned in 2001, as highlighted by the numerous inquiries prompted by the outbreak. The past five years have seen much effort devoted to contingency planning (not just for FMD, but for other diseases, too), to a new surveillance strategy and to the development of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy,with its emphasis on ‘partnership’ and disease prevention. They have also seen structural changes in DEFRA,with the State Veterinary Service being established as an executive agency. Five years on and attention now is focused not so much on FMD,more on avian influenza. The question is,whichever disease comes next, are we better prepared?
DEFRA's contingency planning has been subject to increased scrutiny since 2001, and it is generally acknowledged that things have improved. Last February, for example, the National Audit Office, which had been highly critical of the Government's handling of the FMD crisis, reported that good progress had been made. ‘The department [DEFRA] has taken steps to reduce the risk of virus entering the country through illegal meat imports, to prevent livestock coming into contact with the virus, and to slow the potential initial spread of infection by improved farm biosecurity and restrictions on the movement of animals.’ It further reported that ‘Preparedness for another outbreak is much improved, in terms of contingency planning, staff training, the availability of vaccination as an adjunct to culling, improved dialogue with stakeholders, and standing arrangements with stakeholders to make resources available to fight any future outbreak.’ In November 2005, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee indicated that it was similarly impressed, although it recommended that contingency plans needed to be consistent with those of local authorities, that IT systems should be improved and that farmers' compliance with animal health standards should be subject to greater scrutiny. It also made the singularly unhelpful suggestion that DEFRA ‘should not delay in taking forward proposals to transfer part or all of the costs of future disease outbreaks to the industry’.
The Royal Society,which carried out one of the three main inquiries prompted by the FMD outbreak, has been a little more circumspect in assessing progress.At the end of 2004, in a follow-up to its report in 2002 on controlling infectious diseases of livestock, it remarked that ‘the crucial challenge for DEFRA is to ensure that it has brought together the many strands of its work into a coherent structure’. It suggested that plans should be put in place to address reduced surveillance while DEFRA was developing its ‘RADAR’ surveillance information system and that ‘more fundamentally, it needs to be made clear how the completed system will enhance the surveillance or early diagnosis of non-endemic diseases’. It also drew attention to the potential shortage of large animal veterinarians to undertake the roles required of them, arguing that this would become ‘an increasing problem unless action is taken’.
Contingency plans are all very well on paper (and there has been plenty of that over the past five years); the real test is how well they work in the field. One way in which things have improved since 2001 is that plans are being tested in simulated disease outbreaks: an exercise on FMD, ‘Exercise Hornbeam’, was conducted in 2004, and completion of a planned exercise on avian influenza, ‘Exercise Hawthorn’, has recently been moved forward to April this year (see Letters, p 245 of this issue).As this issue of The Veterinary Record went to press, DEFRA was still maintaining that the risk of avian influenza arriving in the UK was relatively low, and it is to be hoped that the exercise can be completed before the arrangements have to be tested for real.
Problems identified during Exercise Hornbeam will have been all too familiar to those involved in the 2001 FMD outbreak, and concerned issues such as coordination of policy development, communication, clarification of roles and responsibilities, and veterinary recruitment.More recently, in July 2005, DEFRA's contingency plans were put to the test by the outbreak of Newcastle disease in pheasants in Surrey. The operation proved successful and the outbreak was quickly brought under control. A document detailing the lessons from the outbreak has just been posted on DEFRA's website and, while this in itself is admirable, it is worrying to find the same kinds of problem being encountered. DEFRA's document concludes: ‘Since 2001, many lessons have been learnt that have helped to shape our current policies, contingency plans and operational instructions. However … it is clear that some of the lessons that were learnt in 2001 need to be relearned and applied much more transparently across the entire sphere of our emergency preparedness work, particularly with regard to the way that we communicate with each other, our stakeholders, and the public.’
Efforts to improve contingency planning and develop an effective animal health and welfare strategy are being made at a time when agriculture is changing rapidly and farm veterinary services,with their all-important input into surveillance, are becoming ever more difficult to provide.Meanwhile, greater international movement of people, animals and animal products increases the risk of diseases being spread.Minimising the threat means tackling diseases at source, enhanced biosecurity, rapid detection of disease outbreaks and dealing with them efficiently and effectively when they occur. This, in turn, requires maintaining the necessary veterinary infrastructure and continually investing in animal health. If history teaches anything, it is that this is a lesson that must constantly be relearned.