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Vaccinating against bluetongue

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DEFRA's plans to try to prevent the spread of bluetongue in England became clearer this week when, in a speech to the National Farmers' Union, the Secretary of State, Mr Hilary Benn, put its proposals for a mass vaccination campaign firmly in the public domain. Having placed an order for vaccine last December, defra is banking on a voluntary approach, supported by an industry-led campaign emphasising the benefits of vaccination.

Details of the plans, which will remain under review as the disease situation develops, have been posted on defra's website (www.defra.gov.uk). defra has ordered 22·5 million doses of an inactivated vaccine against bluetongue virus serotype 8, which is expected to start to become available in May. Until then, it will continue to apply animal movement controls to contain the disease within the current restricted areas as far as is possible.

This could prove challenging and, at this stage, it is not clear how far the disease might have spread by the time the vaccine is available. Not all of the vaccine will be ready at once but, once it starts to become available, animals in the protection zones will be given priority. Under the scheme proposed, livestock keepers in these zones will be able to purchase vaccine from their veterinary surgeons for administration to their animals under the veterinary surgeon's authority.

Under eu rules, only animals in protection zones can be vaccinated. defra proposes that, once farmers in the existing zones have been given sufficient opportunity to purchase vaccine, and as more vaccine becomes available, the protection zones should be extended to allow vaccination over a wider area.

Experience with other serotypes of bluetongue virus elsewhere in Europe suggests that, for vaccination to be successful, at least 80 per cent of animals need to be vaccinated. Achieving this by voluntary means sounds ambitious but defra believes this is the best approach and that ‘the case for compulsion through government regulation is weak’. It believes that take-up of vaccine is likely to be high, especially with an industry-led campaign promoting the benefits, and that vaccination will make economic sense for livestock keepers as the cost will be significantly outweighed by the potential costs of the impact of the disease. It also argues that a voluntary programme will allow vaccination to be rolled out quickly, reduce the regulatory burden and keep costs to a minimum.

The cost of the vaccine has still to be determined but, defra points out, it will be important to keep costs as low as possible to encourage maximum participation. It is working with the manufacturer and veterinary wholesalers on the cost of each dose but notes that there are likely to be additional costs involved in vaccination, such as veterinary administration or supervision of vaccination, and, potentially, premovement testing, all of which would be borne by those vaccinating their animals.

The vaccine has not yet been granted a marketing authorisation but it is expected to be pom-v. Vets will therefore be responsible for prescribing vaccine to animals under their care following a clinical assessment. However, defra says, vets will not necessarily have to administer the vaccine themselves: ‘If appropriate, keepers will be allowed to administer the vaccine to their animals under the authority of private vets with an appropriate level of advice or supervision where necessary.’

Arrangements for the identification and certification of vaccinated animals have also to be finalised, but defra hopes to keep these as simple and as unbureaucratic as possible. Although livestock keepers will be allowed to vaccinate their animals, defra's vaccination delivery plan notes that, ‘if the animals are vaccinated in order to be moved out of the protection zone for the purposes of domestic or intracommunity trade then a level of certification (and therefore, potentially, supervision) from private or official vets may be required’. It notes that vaccination for the purposes of intracommunity trade will have to be carried out by a vet, while vaccination for the purposes of domestic movement out of the protection zone will require a declaration by the keeper supported by a veterinary certificate. It says that defra is urgently working with veterinary organisations to develop guidance on the potential requirements for veterinary certification. Clearly, the identification and certification arrangements will be fundamental to the operation and credibility of the scheme.

The plans will be submitted to the European Commission for approval and it will be interesting to see how they compare with those being developed by other eu member states following the Commission's announcement regarding support for emergency mass vaccination in January (VR, January 26, 2008, vol 162, pp 101, 102). It will also be interesting to see how they tie in with the control strategies being developed in Scotland and Wales. defra emphasises that the vaccination delivery plan has been developed in conjunction with stakeholders. As the bva President, Mr Nick Blayney, noted in a letter in last week's Veterinary Record, the veterinary profession will have an important part to play in the campaign and it is in everyone's interest that it works February 16, 2008, vol 162, p 223). The plans essentially put the much-vaunted principles of responsibility and cost sharing into practice, although it is perhaps unfortunate that these principles are being tested on a disease that is so difficult to deal with and the consequences of which are so severe.

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