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End of an era

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IT MIGHT not have had quite as much impact on the public consciousness as, say, the last episode of the television series Friends or the final film in the Star Wars saga, but a long-running series from defra came to an end this month and, in its own small way, marked the end of an era. On August 18, defra published what it says will be the last of its annual progress reports on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (tses) in Great Britain*. An accompanying press release describes this as the third annual report, but six-monthly reports have been published for much longer than that — since the height of the bse crisis in the mid-1990s.

The latest report, for 2005, records the continuing decline in the number of new cases and the achievement of three key targets in controlling bse, which in itself goes some way towards explaining why continued publication of the report is no longer considered necessary. These were: international recognition of the British cattle herd's moderate risk status for bse; a favourable report on Great Britain's bse controls from the European Commission's Food and Veterinary Office; and the replacement of the over-30-months rule with a robust system of testing for cattle born after July 1996. Achieving these targets helped to secure the agreement of eu member states to lift the ban on British beef exports which had been in place since 1996, with the result that the ban was lifted on May 3, 2006. With the lifting of the export ban a mission has been accomplished, and defra presumably considers it is time to move on. Information about tses will continue to be published, but it will no longer be consolidated into this single document. Instead, progress will be reported in defra's annual departmental report and in the annual report of the Chief Veterinary Officer; in addition, information will be available on defra's website, at www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/bse/index.html, which is updated regularly.

Getting the export ban lifted was a considerable achievement, and one which would barely have seemed possible 10 years ago. The progress report provides a useful summary of the epidemiology of the disease and the control measures adopted, charting the decline of the epidemic from its peak in 1992, when more than 35,000 cases were confirmed, through to the end of 2005, during which the total number of cases was 203. Of these, 39 were detected by scanning surveillance and 164 through the Government's targeted surveillance programme. It also includes a useful discussion of cases born after the reinforced feed ban became effective in August 1996 (barb cases). By the end of 2005, a total of 123 barb cases had been confirmed in Great Britain, 29 of which were confirmed in 2005. This was a 32 per cent increase on the 22 barb cases confirmed in 2004, and defra attributes this increase to increased culling of cohorts of bse cases (cattle which consumed the same feed as confirmed cases) and an increase in the number of cattle slaughtered and tested towards the end of 2005 in anticipation of changes to the over-30-months rule.

defra's current Public Service Agreement targets include achieving ‘a reduction in the number of cases of bse in Great Britain detected by scanning and targeted surveillance to less than 60 in 2006, with the disease being eradicated by 2010’. The progress report notes, however, that, although 2005 showed an encouraging decline, the 2006 target is unlikely to be met unless the current rate of decline increases. This, it says, will be determined by past events and will mainly be affected by the longevity of the subpopulation of cattle born before August 1996, in which the estimated prevalence of infection is greatest, although it also notes that continued or increasing numbers of barb cases may also have an impact.

As well as discussing the situation in cattle, the report includes an informative overview of government programmes concerning tses in sheep and goats, and also of its tse research programme. Matters discussed include surveillance for tses in sheep and goats, including surveillance for both classical and atypical scrapie, and progress with the National Scrapie Plan. In addition, the report includes a short chapter on variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vcjd) in humans. This notes that, by January 6, 2006, there had been 159 cases of definite or probable vcjd in the uk, 153 of whom had died. It reports that analysis of the latest data continued to show that the epidemic was no longer increasing exponentially; however, it remained premature to conclude that the epidemic had definitely peaked, and the data could not discount further peaks in the future, including the possibility of epidemics in other genetic subpopulations.

Things have moved on since the first bse progress report was published in the 1990s; other means of disseminating information are now available, and defra may well be right in thinking that it is no longer appropriate to publish the reports in their current format. However, those who have grown used to the reports may regret the fact that they will no longer be available. It remains important to maintain a broad overview of developments and, for those not directly involved, that information continues to be available in a concise, easily assimilable form.

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