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A year of outbreaks

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DEFRA has devoted considerable effort to contingency planning since the foot-and-mouth-disease (fmd) outbreak of 2001. In 2007, those plans were repeatedly put to the test — to the extent that, at one point during the year, Great Britain was dealing with three notifiable disease outbreaks simultaneously.

First on the scene was highly pathogenic h5n1 avian influenza, which was confirmed in a large commercial poultry flock near Holton in Suffolk at the beginning of February. The outbreak was quickly contained by culling the 159,000 susceptible birds on the farm, although a subsequent report from defra acknowledged that the efficiency with which this was achieved was partly due to the nature of the premises on which the outbreak occurred. On the basis of virus analysis, the incident was linked to an outbreak in Hungary in January. Quite how the virus found its way to the Holton site could not be determined, but an epidemiological report concluded that the most likely explanation was via imported meat products from preclinically infected turkeys.

Poultry once more came under the spotlight in May, when low pathogenic h7n2 avian influenza was confirmed in chickens on a small farm in Conwy in north-west Wales. However, it was in August that defra's contingency plans were again seriously put to the test, when fmd was confirmed in cattle on a farm in Surrey. It quickly became clear that the outbreak was linked to an escape of virus from the nearby research and vaccine production site at Pirbright and, setting aside the immediate consequences of the disease outbreak, the ramifications of that particular finding are likely to be felt for some time to come. Early identification of the disease meant that, unlike the situation in 2001, the outbreak could be contained. However, an announcement by defra on September 7 that fmd had been eradicated from Surrey proved premature and, five days later, the disease re-emerged on another Surrey premises, just outside the surveillance zone. The re-emergence of the disease may lead defra to revise its strategy for dealing with future fmd outbreaks; it was also devastating news for farmers as it meant the reintroduction of animal movement restrictions, just in time to disrupt the autumn sales.

There was more bad news later in the month when cases of bluetongue were confirmed for the first time in the uk, on a premises near Lowestoft in Suffolk. This resulted in more control zones having to be established over a wide area of England and defra having to develop a strategy for dealing with two significant notifiable disease outbreaks at once. By September 28, after more cases had emerged, bluetongue was confirmed as circulating in East Anglia. The bluetongue virus was thought to have been brought to the uk via infected midges borne on the wind from continental Europe. Its appearance in the uk was not unexpected; indeed, a paper in The Veterinary Record in March had predicted it could arrive by just such a route. However, it was no more welcome for that.

The arrival of bluetongue served to confirm that disease does not respect national boundaries. It also demonstrated that one disease is unlikely to hold back just because attention is focused on another. This last point was underlined in November, with confirmation of a second outbreak of h5n1 avian influenza, this time in poultry on an organic free-range premises near Diss on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. defra has been unable to pinpoint the origin of the outbreak, but is working on the hypothesis that infection may have been introduced by wild birds, most likely migratory species from central Europe.

At the time of writing, the outbreaks of fmd and avian influenza appear to have been dealt with; however, if the experience elsewhere in Europe is anything to go by, bluetongue could again make its presence felt next year. It does seem that the uk has had more than its fair share of disease outbreaks in 2007. It may be, as one overseas delegate at this year's bva Congress remarked, that Great Britain has been ‘astonishingly unfortunate’ in this regard. However, some of the difficulties encountered this year may also reflect the fact that, with globalisation, changes in farming 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 disease outbreaks when they occur. There is no doubt that the resources available to defra to deal with disease outbreaks have been severely stretched in recent months. The lesson should have been learned in 2001, but a key lesson of 2007 is that contingency plans need to be developed to include arrangements for the recruitment of extra veterinarians to help deal with future disease emergencies, should this prove necessary.

In September, the European Commission adopted a new animal health strategy, heralding a new approach to disease control throughout the eu. Like the uk's Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (ahws), the Commission's proposals highlight the importance of disease prevention, with increased emphasis on biosecurity, surveillance and research. Also like the ahws, they aim to shift more of the burden of animal disease control on to the industry, with farmers bearing more of the responsibilities and costs. The idea is that, if farmers are given more responsibility for controlling diseases of animals, they will make more effort to prevent them, although it is clear that costs to the taxpayer are also an issue. In a speech on the future of uk farming last month, the Secretary of State at defra, Mr Hilary Benn, made clear that the Government was determined to press ahead with its agenda on cost and responsibility sharing, which looks set to be a dominant issue for 2008. He also reaffirmed that protecting the environment and tackling climate change were high on the Government's list of priorities.

If defra's priorities are changing, then so, too, is the department itself. In April, defra's Animal Health and Welfare Directorate General was incorporated into a new Food and Farming Group, leading to concern in some quarters that veterinary considerations may hold less sway in the department than previously. Also in April, the State Veterinary Service (svs), which had been made an executive agency of defra in 2005, was renamed Animal Health. The loss of the word ‘veterinary’ from the title was disturbing. The svs was established in 1865 in response to an incursion of cattle plague. To some, it seemed that 140 years of history was being jettisoned as a result of a rebranding exercise.

Animal Health has subsequently embarked on an Official Veterinarian reform programme, with a view to defining a new relationship between the state and private practitioners. The Government continues to emphasise the importance of working in partnership on animal health, but things were not helped at the end of March when defra and the devolved administrations suddenly announced that they would be ending routine testing of beef herds for brucellosis.

In June, the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle tb (isg), which had been set up by the Government in 1998 to oversee the randomised badger culling trial, submitted its final report to ministers. After nearly 10 years' work, the isg stated its conclusions unequivocally. While badgers were clearly a source of cattle tb, badger culling, it said, could not meaningfully contribute to the control of bovine tb in Great Britain. However, it said, rigorous application of heightened control measures directly targeting cattle would reverse the year-on-year increase in the incidence of the disease and halt its spread. The situation was complicated in October when, having assessed the isg's report with the help of five experts, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, essentially drew the opposite conclusion. It is not clear at this stage what action the Government will choose to take on the back of the isg's report, although it is certainly clear that, over the past 10 years, the incidence of the disease has increased. It is also clear that science alone will not provide all the answers and that practical decisions need to be taken soon.

Having been approved by Parliament in 2006, the Animal Welfare Act came into force on April 6, 2007, in England and March 27 in Wales, placing a duty of care on the owners and keepers of all vertebrate animals to ensure that their animals' needs are met. The Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act places a similar obligation on owners in Scotland. The new legislation should make it possible to take steps to prevent animals suffering; previously, it had only been possible to act retrospectively. This is clearly a welcome development, although concerns remain about implementation, and how well the legislation will be understood and enforced. Enforcement will not be made any easier by the fact that legislation may be applied differently in England, Scotland and Wales, as has already happened with regard to docking dogs' tails. Scotland decided on an outright ban on non-therapeutic tail docking in 2007; a ban also applies in England and Wales, but working dogs are exempted.

The first World Rabies Day took place on September 8, aimed at raising international awareness of the disease and the means available to prevent it. As its own contribution to the event, The Veterinary Record of September 1 included a number of articles discussing the thinking behind the initiative, and the role that veterinarians can play in tackling the disease worldwide. Rabies was also one of the many issues discussed at the bsava congress in April, at which the association celebrated it 50th anniversary year. In both Europe and the uk, discussions continued on the future of the Pet Travel Scheme, and the arrangements that will be put in place when the legal derogation that allows the scheme to operate in its current form comes to an end next year. The main small animal story in the usa in 2007 concerned a nationwide recall of several brands of pet food after a number of animals died and imported wheat gluten included in the foods was found to have been contaminated with melamine.

In the uk, the rcvs continued to develop its plans for a new Veterinary Surgeons Act, with a view to extending the regulation of veterinary surgeons and making veterinary nurses and veterinary practices subject to statutory regulation. It is still unclear whether the Government will find parliamentary time to update the Act. However, the issue gained impetus in July, when the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee announced that it would be holding an inquiry into the rcvs proposals. The select committee's inquiry will not necessarily lead to new legislation; however, it could help precipitate it, and should at least push the Government into making its position clear. In the meantime, the College continues to move towards professional regulation of veterinary nurses. In September it opened a new voluntary register for veterinary nurses, as well as introducing a cpd record card and a voluntary guide to professional conduct.

At a time when the disease challenges are increasing, the funding available for veterinary research and the number of vets involved in research remains of concern. However, there was good news in September when the Wellcome Trust announced that it would be making £10·7 million available to help train the next generation of veterinary researchers.

Despite these and other developments, for those concerned with animal health, 2007 was a year dominated by disease outbreaks. With the distinct possibility that bluetongue will re-emerge next spring, there is no reason at this stage to believe that next year will be any different. So far, the effort devoted to contingency planning appears to have paid off. However, as events continue to demonstrate, prevention is better than cure. There is a need to move forward with the ahws and turn some of its principles into reality.

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