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IT IS perhaps unfortunate, from DEFRA’s point of view, that confirmation of highly pathogenic avian influenza in wild birds in continental Europe should have coincided with the fifth anniversary of the start of the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak. Memories of that outbreak still linger and it is, perhaps, a measure of the strength of feeling engendered in 2001 that contributed to the situation at the beginning of this week, where DEFRA was being castigated in the press for the way in which it was dealing with avian influenza even though the disease had not been identified in birds in the UK.

Such criticism may be hard to bear, but to an extent, DEFRA can be said to have brought the problem on itself. There may have been good reasons why, even as avian influenza was being identified in wild birds in various other European Union (EU) countries, DEFRA was still maintaining that the risk to the UK was relatively low, but it needs to be made clear to the public what the reasons are. It may well also be that DEFRA remains confident in its contingency plans, but people need to be told why, with any areas of uncertainty being highlighted. No-one wants to precipitate unnecessary alarm but, as became clear during the BSE crisis, people need to be trusted with information, and also told where information is lacking. If the issues are not fully explained, confidence is undermined. For whatever reason, information from DEFRA seems to have been in short supply over the past few days; in such circumstances, the impression that everything is under control becomes harder to maintain.

Things have not been helped at the European level, where, as this issue of The Veterinary Record was going to press, discussions were taking place on whether vaccination should be included in the control measures. The arrival of avian influenza in the EU was not unexpected and one cannot help feeling that the arguments could have been thrashed out beforehand. The debate about whether to vaccinate or cull seems set to reignite the arguments that occurred during the 2001 FMD outbreak, despite the lessons that were learned at the time and the legislative changes introducing greater flexibility into infectious disease control arrangements that were made as a result. The issues with respect to avian influenza are complex and again involve consideration of not just what is best in terms of disease control and animal health and welfare, but also of what is practical, what is acceptable to producers, consumers and the public, and, inevitably, economics and the implications for trade. Most of these factors are interrelated and resolving the issues to everyone’s satisfaction is never going to be easy if, indeed, it can ever be achieved. The point is that, so far as is possible, approaches need to be agreed well in advance, not during an epidemic or on the eve of a potential outbreak.

DEFRA has devoted considerable effort to contingency plans over the past few years and these have been available for comment and subject to parliamentary scrutiny. The plans were put to the test during last year’s outbreak of Newcastle disease and in that instance the outbreak was quickly controlled, albeit that practical problems were encountered (VR, February 18, 2006, vol 158, pp 213-214). It is the practicalities of disease control that are so important, as is currently being demonstrated by, for example, arguments taking place about when and how domestic poultry should be moved indoors. The priority at this stage must be to promptly identify any avian influenza in wild birds and do everything possible to prevent its spread into poultry. Should that occur, the disease must be quickly contained and eradicated. Looking further ahead, there would seem to be a need to consider the possibility that the infection might become established in indigenous wild birds, and the control measures that might need to be adopted by poultry producers should that turn out to be the case.

While comparison between FMD and avian influenza is valid and the same basic principles of disease control (and the same controversies) apply, avian influenza is different from FMD in a number of ways, and presents different challenges. UK media attention this week has very much focused on the situation in Europe and the current threat to the UK. However, with outbreaks in Africa and India, and the disease apparently endemic in parts of south-east Asia, it is important to remember that this is a global problem and that tackling it effectively continues to require international investment and collaboration on a global scale.

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