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Looking back on 2009

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THE world had been gearing up for a possible human pandemic involving a new form of H5N1 avian influenza but, in the event, it was a different influenza virus that made its presence felt in 2009: human cases involving a new H1N1 influenza A virus started making the headlines in April and, in June, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that infection in humans had reached the level of a global pandemic. Although it first became apparent in people, and is predominantly a human disease, the new virus was quickly dubbed ‘swine flu’ by the world’s media and, despite efforts by the WHO and the World Organisation for Animal Health to clarify the situation, the name stuck.

The emergence of H1N1 influenza A clearly demonstrated the capacity of influenza viruses to surprise. However, the potential threat to human health from avian influenza has not diminished as a result of the H1N1 pandemic, and it seems fair to say that some parts of the world were better prepared for the pandemic than they would otherwise have been if it had not been for concerns about avian influenza. The experience illustrates the continuing importance of surveillance for disease in animal and human populations, with efforts being coordinated internationally and across disciplines. It also underlines the need to continue to invest in research. In this respect, there was good news in July, when the Government and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council made a commitment to invest £100 million in redeveloping the UK’s animal virus research facility at Pirbright, after a period during which the future of the facility seemed in some doubt.

No cases of bluetongue were reported in the UK in 2009. This was largely attributed to the success of the vaccination campaigns initiated in 2008 and a more recent compulsory vaccination programme in France. Nevertheless, in September, the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer expressed concern about a dearth of reports of suspected cases. He was concerned about the possibility of cases going undetected, meaning that the disease could still emerge next year unless farmers continued to take steps to protect their stock.

There was little to report in terms of success in controlling bovine TB in 2009, as the incidence of infected herds and animals in England and Wales continued to increase. However, there were a number of political developments, as the devolved administrations of the UK pursued different policies. In England, changes to the cattle testing regime were announced during the year, along with plans for a badger vaccination trial. Wales, meanwhile, continued to make progress in implementing its TB eradication programme, which includes proposals for a targeted cull of badgers. In September, the European Commission recognised Scotland as being officially free from bovine TB. Plans for eradicating the disease from the rest of the UK were approved by the Commission in October.

In the autumn, the European Commission began a consultation on possible approaches to a new animal health law. A single, clearer regulatory framework for animal health in Europe is central to the EU’s Animal Health Strategy, and the consultation, the initial stage of which closes on December 31, marks the beginning of a process that will have a significant impact on the way animal health issues are dealt with in the future, covering a broad spectrum of veterinary activity.

With its motto ‘Prevention is better than cure’, the EU Animal Health Strategy emphasises the importance of biosecurity in safeguarding animal health, as well as of surveillance and research. Like the UK’s Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, it also advocates responsibility and cost sharing as a means of safeguarding animal health more effectively.

Responsibility and cost sharing was the subject of much debate in the UK in 2009, as Defra continued to try to develop arrangements before the European framework is established. At the end of March, Defra published a consultation document setting out its proposals, including plans to establish a new body to oversee animal health. The new body would operate at ‘arm’s length’ from Government; it would take on most of Defra’s current responsibilities for animal health, while responsibility for animal welfare policy would remain with Defra.

Responding to the consultation, the BVA expressed serious misgivings about the proposals, particularly in relation to the idea of separating responsibilities for animal welfare and animal health. It also expressed concern that a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities could compromise the UK’s ability to respond effectively to major disease outbreaks. Defra, however, seems determined to press ahead. In July, just a week after the consultation closed, it announced that it was setting up a joint industry and government working group to advise on how the plans should be developed.

Also of concern during the year was the question of what will happen to the UK’s Pet Travel Scheme when a temporary derogation under European law that allows the UK to apply stricter controls on the movement of pets than most other EU member states comes to an end. The issues were discussed at a seminar during the BSAVA Congress in April, and again at the BVA Congress in September. In June, the European Commission proposed that the derogation should be extended until the end of December 2011. However, the derogation has already been extended twice, and it was clear from the debates at the two congresses that the UK will have to move quickly to find the evidence that may be needed to convince the Commission and other member states that some important controls, including those designed to keep the zoonotic tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis out of the country, should be retained.

In November, the Council of the RCVS decided to seek an amendment to the Veterinary Surgeons Act which, if it happens, will result in changes to the disciplinary machinery of the profession. The Council also considered changes to the arrangements for work-based training of veterinary nurses, which, when implemented, will have implications for many practices.

Codes of practice for the welfare of dogs and cats were published by Defra in December. The codes contain useful advice for owners on their duty of care to their animals but, disappointingly, do not include advice on good breeding practice. Welfare problems associated with inherited disease in dogs continued to be the subject of much attention in 2009, following broadcast of the programme ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ by the BBC in August 2008. Also receiving increased attention were issues surrounding dangerous dogs and, along with other developments, the year saw the introduction in the Scottish Parliament of the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Bill. Unlike the Dangerous Dogs Act, the proposed legislation focuses on owners’ behaviour and the incident involving the dog, rather than its particular breed.

Regarding farm animal welfare, in October, the Farm Animal Welfare Council published a paper assessing progress since the 1960s and set out a strategy that it believes will lead to steady improvements over the next 20 years. In doing so, it called for a significant shift in the current focus of policy on animal welfare, so that this moves beyond preventing cruelty and unnecessary suffering and providing for animals’ needs, to ensuring an acceptable quality of life over the animal’s lifetime.

The role of vets in relation to farm animal health and welfare was among matters considered in a report on veterinary expertise in food production, which was published in August. The report, ‘Unlocking potential’ by Professor Philip Lowe, originated as a result of concerns about whether enough large animal vets would be available to help fulfil the aims of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, but its observations went further than that. Among other things, it suggested that vets should renew their relationship with farmers and government, and that veterinary services need to be more closely aligned to the changing needs of the livestock sector.

An overriding message of the report was that the veterinary profession should take more of a lead, and play a greater part in defining its role in food animal production in the future. After a year in which concern about food security has again been to the fore, not least because of a growing realisation of the challenges inherent in meeting future world food demand sustainably, that particular recommendation might usefully be taken forward in the year ahead.

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