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Pieces of '08

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IF 2007 is remembered in the uk for its disease outbreaks — avian influenza, foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue — 2008 may be remembered as the year in which a devastating outbreak of bluetongue was averted, at least for the time being. Nevertheless, bluetongue dominated the veterinary political scene in 2008, both in the uk and elsewhere in Europe, where the disease again took its toll in practical terms, with thousands of farms being affected. At the beginning of the year, the European Commission announced that it would be making funds available for eu-wide emergency vaccination against bluetongue, although at the time it was by no means certain whether sufficient vaccine would be available. In the uk, defra, having placed an early order for vaccine, opted for a voluntary vaccination campaign, with vaccination gradually being ‘rolled out’ across England as supplies started to become available in May. Wales also adopted a voluntary approach, with the first animals being vaccinated from the end of June. Scotland, meanwhile, opted for a compulsory campaign, and vaccination began in November with a view to protecting livestock in 2009.

The voluntary approach taken in England and Wales was not without controversy, not least because it was adopted mainly for pragmatic reasons and because of concerns about whether enough animals would be vaccinated for sufficient cover to be achieved. However, in a letter to The Veterinary Record earlier this month, experts from the Institute for Animal Health, Pirbright, reported that the 2008 campaign appeared to have been successful. At the same time they warned that there was no room for complacency and that vaccination must continue. Indeed, with bluetongue virus serotypes 8 and 1 having spread further in France, and serotype 6 having been found in the Netherlands, the threat in 2009 looks set to be even greater than in 2008.

There was little to report in terms of success in the control of bovine tuberculosis (tb) in 2008; on the contrary, figures released by defra last month showed that the number of incidents continues to rise. In July, in a long-awaited statement, the Secretary of State at defra, Mr Hilary Benn, predictably unleashed a political storm by ruling out badger culling as a means of controlling bovine tb in cattle in England. Mr Benn's statement promised more investment in vaccine research, but little in the way of alternative controls, including further controls on cattle. Instead, he noted that strengthening cattle controls would come at a cost and announced plans to set up a Bovine tb Partnership Group to work with the industry to develop a joint plan for tackling the disease. That proposal has met considerable resistance from the industry but it must be hoped that, with the recent formation of a tb Eradication Group, which involves industry representatives, progress might yet be made. It must also be hoped that the controversy surrounding the Government's approach to bovine tb does not continue to skew discussions on sharing responsibilities and costs in safeguarding animal health generally; with a consultation document on this subject expected any day now, these will be an important feature of the months ahead.

Mr Benn may have ruled out badger culling in England, but that does not seem to be the case in Wales, where an intensive, pilot, targeted cull was among options included in a strategy for eradicating the disease announced by the Welsh rural affairs minister, Ms Elin Jones, in April. The different approaches taken to bovine tb and bluetongue by England, Scotland and Wales in 2008 illustrated how, with decisions on animal health being devolved in the uk, policies are starting to diverge. This can cause difficulties as disease does not respect national boundaries and Great Britain needs to be considered an epidemiological whole. It can also cause tensions, as Dr Iain Anderson remarked in his report in April on the lessons learned from last year's foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. In March this year, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland issued a joint consultation document on plans to develop an all-Ireland animal health and welfare strategy.

The idea that British agriculture has an important role to play in food production gained some ground in 2008 having seemed almost to have dropped off the Government's agenda in recent years. The increased interest was prompted by concern about the effects of climate change, developments in the world economy, the fact that an increasing proportion of the world's agricultural land is being given over to biofuel production, and the realisation that, with the world's population expected to grow from 6·5 billion to 9 billion by 2050, world demand for food could outstrip supply.

In July, a government consultation document presenting ‘a vision for science and society’ discussed the benefits of science and explained how it ‘will help us to address the main challenges we face as a nation and a planet’. It listed these challenges as: tackling and adapting to climate change; global security and international terrorism; rising populations and the consequent pressure on food, water and other natural resources; and the impact of human diseases such as pandemic influenza and animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue. It remains striking that veterinary science has much to contribute in each of these areas, which serves to underline its relevance to society. The contribution that vets might make with regard to tackling climate change was among matters discussed at the bva congress in September, the theme of which was ‘Vets in a changing environment’.

Since being formed out of the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions during the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic in 2001, defra has increasingly focused on climate change and safeguarding the environment. However, defra itself underwent a significant change in October 2008 when, as a result of a Cabinet reshuffle, a large chunk of its environmental brief was moved to a new Department of Energy and Climate Change.

There was an abrupt change in defra's thinking on a new Veterinary Surgeons Act during the year. This was dramatically revealed during a select committee hearing in March when Lord Rooker, the minister then responsible for animal health and welfare, said that, following an urgent reordering of defra's priorities, it would not be in a position to consider a new Act until after 2011. This came as something of a surprise to the committee, and many other people besides, because defra had previously argued that the Act was in urgent need of updating. The Government subsequently indicated that ideally, when it gets round to it, it would like to see a new regulatory framework for veterinary services, and discussions continue within the profession about how and to what extent the existing arrangements should be changed.

There was a welcome development at the end of October when a ban on veterinary surgeons charging clients for prescriptions, introduced by the Department of Trade and Industry three years ago, finally came to an end. However, the Office of Fair Trading has indicated that it will be monitoring prescription charges, and the possibility remains that, if clients are charged inappropriately, the ban might be reintroduced. In a separate development, the rcvs and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate announced plans for establishing a statutory register of veterinary premises from which medicines are supplied; the register is now open and, under the Veterinary Medicines Regulations, registration will be a legal requirement from April 1, 2009.

In April, the European Parliament voted to extend by two years a derogation under eu law which allows the uk to operate the Pet Travel Scheme (pets) in its present form. However, concerns remain about what will happen to Britain's arrangements for preventing the introduction of rabies after July 2010, when the derogation is finally due to expire. The importance of maintaining effective rabies controls was illustrated by an incident in April 2008, when the disease was confirmed in a uk quarantine premises, in a puppy imported under quarantine from Sri Lanka.

Concern about animal welfare problems associated with selective dog breeding came to the fore in August, following the broadcast on bbc 1 of a programme called ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’. The programme proved controversial and the issues it highlighted were not new. However, it certainly stimulated action, resulting, among other things, in a review by the Kennel Club of pedigree breeds, and a call from the bva for an independent review of the breeding of dogs in general, and for all pedigree dogs to be permanently identified. It remains to be seen what the outcome will eventually be in animal welfare terms, but in the meantime the ramifications of the broadcast continue (see p 731 of this issue).

The uk may have averted an epidemic of bluetongue in 2008, but the year was by no means free of disease incidents, with outbreaks of avian influenza in January and June, for example, and cases of bluetongue in animals imported from bluetongue-affected areas of Europe. Such incidents continue to demonstrate the vital importance of biosecurity (as highlighted by the first European Veterinary Week, launched in November 2008) and of being in a position to deal with disease outbreaks when they occur. With defra keen to limit expenditure and pursue its proposals for cost and responsibility sharing, finding ways of doing that undoubtedly presents the challenge for the year ahead.

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