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ANNUAL reports from the Chief Veterinary Officer (cvo) are always of interest — not just in summarising the animal health situation in Great Britain but also in indicating changes in the Government's approach. The latest report, Animal Health 2007*, which was published this week, is no exception. 2007 was a busy year in terms of animal health; at one point the country was dealing with three exotic disease outbreaks at once. It was a year that saw high-level organisational changes in defra, reflecting changing priorities in the department and resulting in changes in the cvo's role. It was a year in which defra decided to move forward with proposals for responsibility and cost sharing on animal health, while also having to make cuts to its overall budget.

The report provides a useful overview of the animal health situation up to the end of 2007. However, continuing the trend of recent years, there is less detailed disease information than in previous reports and more emphasis on strategy. To an extent this is inevitable given various organisational changes in defra over the years, which have meant that its ‘core’ animal health and welfare group is now primarily concerned with policy development, while delivery of those policies has effectively been outsourced to agencies. As a result of these changes, the report is less useful as a one-stop source of information on Great Britain's animal health status than previously, although it does contain numerous references to defra's website, where more information can be obtained.

In a foreword to the report, Mr Fred Landeg, who was appointed as acting cvo last autumn, describes 2007 as ‘a challenging year due to the combined impact of avian influenza, bluetongue and foot-and-mouth disease’. While there are lessons to be learned, there are, he says, ‘many positives that can be drawn from our response to these outbreaks, not least the partnership evident between all stakeholders.’ He says that, despite the challenges, defra continues to make progress with the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (ahws), particularly its work relating to industry-government partnerships promoting farm health planning. He is also pleased with the progress that has been made on responsibility and cost sharing.

A striking feature of the report is the emphasis on devolution. The point is made right at the start that animal health matters are fully devolved into the national administrations of the uk and, for the first time, the report includes summaries of how animal health and welfare policies are developing in Scotland and Wales. There is nothing new about devolution, and decisions on animal health have been devolved for some time. However, it is only in recent months that the effects have really begun to be apparent, starting, perhaps, during last year's foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Surrey, when the control measures adopted because of an outbreak in England caused difficulties in Scotland and Wales, and continuing as England and the devolved administrations take different approaches to the prevention and control of diseases such as bovine tuberculosis (tb) and bluetongue. One of the benefits of devolution is that policies can be tailored to local circumstances. At the same time, animal health measures need to be coordinated and compatible, and achieving the necessary coordination undoubtedly presents challenges for the future.

Another striking feature of the report is the range of species and topics discussed. This is the first cvo's report to include a specific chapter on equine health, for example, and the first to devote a chapter to fish. There is discussion of mrsa in animals and, in another first for a cvo's report, a short section on amphibians. The broad range of topics reflects the scope of the ahws, which is rightly concerned not just with farm animals but with animal health and welfare as a whole. However, depth is needed as well as breadth, and, as defra expands its range of interests in conjunction with stakeholders, it must take care to ensure that essential activities continue to receive the support they require.

Last year's disease outbreaks are dealt with in a chapter on emergency preparedness, while a chapter on disease control covers bovine tb and bse and other tses. Statistics in the section on bovine tb paint a depressing picture, indicating an 18 per cent increase in the number of new herd breakdowns; there were 4172 new breakdowns in 2007, compared with 3531 in 2006. In contrast, the incidence of bse continued to decline: only 67 cases were confirmed in 2007 which is remarkable when one considers that more than 37,000 cases were detected at the peak of the epidemic in 1992. Unfortunately, a comment elsewhere in the report indicates that success in controlling bse may have a downside in terms of reduced funding for research: ‘The steady decline in the proportion of defra's research budget allocated to work on tses is being managed to minimise the impact on key research teams and to maintain the uk's global reputation as a source of tse expertise.’

defra announced last month that a new cvo, Mr Nigel Gibbens, had just been appointed (VR, May 24, 2008, vol 162, p 666). He deserves the profession's support. Dealing with disease outbreaks and implementing the ahws present significant challenges in their own right. As defra continues to contend with changing priorities, organisational change and shrinking budgets, there will be much to keep him occupied for the foreseeable future.

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