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Strengthening surveillance

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VETERINARY surveillance is fundamental to efforts to safeguard animal and human health, as experience with bse and foot-and-mouth disease (fmd) has demonstrated. It is only through the constant collection, collation and analysis of data that one can be aware of what is happening, detect any changes and take appropriate action. Deciding on what information is relevant and which changes may be significant presents challenges; often, the value of surveillance data only becomes apparent in retrospect and, while there will always be a need to set priorities, the system must be sensitive to unexpected as well as predictable events.

This was recognised by defra in 2003 when, following a consultation process which began before the 2001 fmd epidemic, it launched a Veterinary Surveillance Strategy aimed at improving the uk's capability in this area. While noting that ‘no veterinary surveillance system could ever eliminate all risk of a major animal health problem’, and that ‘veterinary surveillance conducted within reasonable costs could never be infallible’, the Veterinary Surveillance Strategy set out to make best use of available sources of information to allow earlier warning and more rapid detection of disease threats facing the uk. It set ambitious targets for strengthening surveillance over the next 10 years, based on five strategic goals: strengthening collaborations with stakeholders; developing a prioritisation process; deriving better value from surveillance information and activities; sharing information more widely; and enhancing the quality assurance of outputs.

A key element of the new strategy was the development of an innovative information management system, called radar (for Rapid Analysis and Detection of Animal-related Risks). This would be used to collate information from various sources, assist in its analysis and disseminate the findings to various target audiences. In an article on pp 105-112 of this issue, Ruth Lysons and colleagues from defra describe the approach taken in developing radar and discuss progress so far.

Under the Government's strategy, veterinary surveillance is considered to be the package of activities that provides early warning and prompt detection of animal health and welfare problems, together with tracking and analysis of where they are and how they spread. These activities apply to infectious diseases, chemical contamination/toxicity, welfare concerns and inherently new diseases. Veterinary surveillance also includes animal conditions which may pose a threat to human health, either directly or via food products, even where the conditions are not apparent in the animal itself.

The aim of radar is to draw together existing sources of information to identify, analyse and track animal disease-related threats rapidly. It also aims to provide a channel for surveillance information, which can be accessed by vets and farmers. The surveillance strategy rightly recognised that practising veterinary surgeons would be an important source of information, noting that they have ‘a key role both in the sifting and reporting of surveillance data, and in interpreting the implications of surveillance outputs for their clients’. It also highlighted the need to make best use of information from as many sources as possible, including farmers and other animal keepers, abattoirs, diagnostic laboratories and disease control programmes, as well as targeted surveillance where appropriate. The value of surveillance information crucially depends on the quality of the data fed into the system, which requires that information from different sources is analysed and graded according to the basis on which it is obtained. In their article, Mrs Lysons and colleagues give an indication of the many factors that need to be considered in this process, describing the methods being used to assess the value of various inputs and assure the quality of the information that emerges.

Although the project is still at a relatively early stage, considerable progress has been made over the past three years and the results can be seen on the veterinary surveillance pages of defra's website, at www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/diseases/vetsurveillance/index.htm. These give a tangible indication of what has been achieved so far but, perhaps more importantly, indicate what might be achieved in the future. There is no doubt that the system envisaged in the Veterinary Surveillance Strategy — providing convenient access to validated, quality-assured surveillance data and reports, together with up-to-date peer-reviewed information on specific diseases and conditions through a database of disease profiles — will be of immense value to practitioners and others concerned with safeguarding animal health, and it is important that the momentum associated with this project is not lost. At the same time, it remains essential that the veterinary infrastructure that underpins surveillance, by both providing data and helping farmers to act on the findings, is maintained. A veterinary input is vital to surveillance, but this requires that vets are available and in a position to visit farms regularly.

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