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DEFRA has devoted much effort to contingency planning since the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) epizootic of 2001, which, given current circumstances, is probably just as well. The publication last week of a report on its response to the outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza in Holton in Suffolk in February,* at a time when the country is grappling with simultaneous outbreaks of FMD and bluetongue, provides a useful reminder that the threat of avian influenza has not receded in recent months; indeed, as the deputy chief veterinary officer, Mr Fred Landeg, remarked last week, the UK will be at increased risk during the autumn bird migration period. The threat of disease is ever present, and it is important to be both vigilant and prepared. There is a need to be alert on several fronts; as demonstrated by FMD and bluetongue, one disease is unlikely to hold back just because attention is focused on another.

Being prepared is what contingency planning is all about and, as the Secretary of State at DEFRA, Mr Hilary Benn, rightly points out in his foreword to the report, it is important to learn from experience to improve capability for the future. He also makes the excellent point that 'We must guard against being too prescriptive in our approach to responding to outbreaks of disease in the future'; each situation will be different, he says, presenting new challenges which will require different approaches to resolve them.

The avian influenza outbreak in February was not the first time DEFRA's contingency plans had been put to the test, whether in training exercises or for real, and it is encouraging that DEFRA continues to develop its plans and learn from its experiences. Indeed, it is interesting to learn from the report that it is planning a national simulation exercise in February next year to test its ability to respond to an outbreak of classical swine fever. As far as the (all too real) outbreak of avian influenza at Holton was concerned, DEFRA judges the control operation to have been a success although, as one would expect from this kind of analysis, its report also identifies areas where things could be improved.

Overall, the report seems to have found less to criticise than similar reports on previous disease outbreaks and exercises. However, some of the issues identified may still sound familiar to those who were involved in dealing with FMD in 2001, and in subsequent exercises and disease outbreaks, such as the outbreak of Newcastle disease in pheasants in Surrey in 2005. They include, for example, the need to clarify the roles and responsibilities of some of the agencies involved in dealing with an outbreak, and the point at which they should be involved; communications from the infected premises to the local disease control centre (LDCC) and from the LDCC to the national disease control centre; and clarification of local management and command structures. Human resources issues are also highlighted, with the point being made that more attention needs to be paid to the pay and working conditions for staff on infected premises, to ensure that staff are not working excessive hours and that appropriate cover is available. The report notes that disease outbreaks inevitably have an impact on other areas of work undertaken by Animal Health and, in the light of the Holton incident, calls for a review of realistic requirements for personnel to assist in the response to outbreaks. It also suggests that consideration should be given to establishing a 'rapid response' team of dedicated Animal Health staff to assist in the initial stages of the local response to an outbreak.

A clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities of different agencies has always been important when dealing with disease outbreaks, and has become more so as a consequence of devolution and as the number of agencies involved has increased. Meanwhile, the need to have arrangements in place to ensure that sufficient personnel are available to deal with disease outbreaks has been highlighted repeatedly since 2001. It was highlighted most recently by the BVA President at the Association's annual congress in Belfast (see VR, October 6, 2007, vol 161, pp 463-464), and it is surely time that this issue was resolved.

DEFRA's report draws attention to the important role that industry and other stakeholders played in achieving a successful outcome at Holton, adding that 'the role of industry within disease control will become increasingly important over the coming year as we continue to explore the responsibility and cost-sharing agenda and the way in which it may support our preparedness for, and response to, outbreaks of disease.' Much continues to be made of cost and responsibility sharing as a means of preventing and improving the response to disease outbreaks. However, it is worrying that, in a week when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations called for 'strong political support and funding for animal health and more adequate veterinary services', the British Government's 2007 Pre-Budget Report and Comprehensive Spending Review should indicate that, by 2010/11, cost-sharing on animal health is expected to generate 'net cash-releasing savings' of £121 million a year. The Government, through DEFRA, is right to develop and refine its contingency plans. However, it should not underestimate the costs of safeguarding animal health and fail to make the necessary investment.


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