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Pulling together on animal health

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THIS year's bva Congress always looked like being topical. News of the appearance of bluetongue in the uk just one week beforehand made it all the more relevant. The disease was formally confirmed as circulating in East Anglia on September 28, while the meeting was taking place, resulting in the imposition of protection and control zones, and prompting more than one speaker at the congress to express concern that, if the disease overwinters successfully in the uk, as it has in other north European countries, it is likely to become endemic. The protection and control zones, in which movement restrictions apply, cover a large chunk of south-east England. They dwarf the protection and surveillance zones imposed as a result of the foot-and-mouth disease (fmd) outbreak which continues to rumble on in Surrey and, if bluetongue does become established, could potentially cause problems long after the fmd outbreak has been dealt with.

The past year has seen outbreaks of three serious viral diseases in the uk — highly pathogenic avian influenza, fmd and now bluetongue. It may be, as one overseas delegate at the congress observed, that the uk has been ‘astonishingly unfortunate’ in this regard. However, the outbreaks also serve to emphasise that the threat of disease is ever present. With globalisation and increased movement of people, animals and goods, the challenges are increasing. There is a need to be vigilant for disease, to strengthen biosecurity and veterinary surveillance, and to be in a position to deal with outbreaks when they occur. As recognised by the new European Community Animal Health Policy, which was adopted by the European Commission last month (VR, September 29, 2007, vol 161, pp 435-436), the emphasis must be on disease prevention, with greater collaboration among everyone involved. The European strategy document (available at http://ec.europa.eu/food/animal/diseases/strategy/index_en.htm) is much more readable than most policy documents emanating from Brussels, and the relevance of the bva Congress was further underlined by the fact that Dr Eric Marin, of the ec's Health and Consumer Protection Directorate General, who coordinated an evaluation of the new policy, was present at the meeting to explain the thinking behind it.

Important elements of the new strategy include improved biosecurity, surveillance and crisis preparedness, along with investment in science, innovation and research. It also places emphasis on sharing responsibilities and costs relating to the prevention and control of animal diseases. An interesting point to emerge from the congress debates was that, although the European strategy was in many ways inspired by the uk's Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, some other eu member states are ahead of the uk in applying its principles, particularly with regard to cost and responsibility sharing and collaboration among stakeholders. The point was made that there was a need for uk stakeholders to take ‘ownership’ of animal health, and for a better appreciation by government and society of the importance of animals in food production. There was also a need for a better appreciation of the role of veterinarians in safeguarding animal and human health. The idea that animals might be needed to maintain food supplies seems almost to have dropped off the Government's agenda in recent years, but could soon be back on it as the world's population and other countries’ economies continue to grow, and competition for scarce resources intensifies.

It would be wrong to give the impression that the congress, which was held in Belfast from September 27 to 29, was all about farm animals and infectious disease control but, with both fmd and bluetongue making their presence felt in Great Britain, this, clearly, was a pertinent aspect. As well as covering other political issues, the congress included a significant cpd element, dealing with companion animal, equine and other topics, along with issues relating to practice management and public health. The theme of the meeting was ‘Pulling together’ and, with a higher attendance than at bva congresses in recent years, and with various bva divisions contributing to the programme, it succeeded in this aim at various levels. Reports from some of the congress sessions appear in this issue of The Veterinary Record; others will be published over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, so far as disease control is concerned, the stakes are getting higher. As the congress made clear, it is time for everyone with an interest in animal health — including the veterinary profession, farmers, the Government and, indeed, the wider public — to pull together to turn policies that have long been talked about into a workable reality.

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