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Thinking globally

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News of a new UK research initiative in animal health would always be welcome, but the announcement this week of a £13 million initiative to tackle the growing threat posed by livestock diseases to global food security and livelihoods in developing countries is doubly so, not least because most government pronouncements on research and higher education these days seem to concern a need to make efficiency savings and ‘tighten belts’.

The initiative (see p 219) is being funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Department for International Development, with a contribution from the Scottish Government, and will be supporting 16 new projects that bring together world-class researchers with institutions in the developing world. The projects aim to find sustainable solutions to the animal disease threat to food security and help build scientific capacity in developing countries. Each project has a UK and an international partner, bringing together scientists in l5 institutions in the UK with researchers in countries including India, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Projects included in the initiative will consider diseases such as foot-andmouth disease, bluetongue, peste des petits ruminants and African swine fever, as well as looking at new approaches to controlling helminth and protozoan parasites. The UK institutions involved include the Institute for Animal Health, the Moredun Research Institute, the Scottish Agricultural College, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, the Royal Veterinary College, and the universities of Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool and Nottingham.

The initiative is particularly welcome, first, because it provides tangible evidence that the significance of animal health to global food security and the importance of livestock in alleviating poverty and world hunger are being recognised, when remarks from some commentators in recent months might have suggested that this was in doubt. Secondly, it recognises that tackling infectious diseases effectively requires an international effort and can never simply be a matter of closing down frontiers and trying to keep diseases out. As the funding bodies remarked on announcing the initiative, animal diseases do not respect international frontiers, so the research will also have significant benefits for UK farmers and consumers.

Opportunities and challenges in infectious disease control were assessed in depth in a project conducted under the Government's Foresight programme in 2006. The resultant report, ‘Infectious diseases: preparing for the future’ (VR, May 6, 2006, vol 158, p 605), made the point that animal disease outbreaks can be devastating in human and economic terms as well as in their own right and that ‘the great majority of emerging and re-emerging human infectious diseases have emerged from animal sources’. While science might not hold all the answers in the fight against disease, it is, the report pointed out, ‘a powerful tool in the battle’, and it explained how new approaches and technologies could assist in the early detection, rapid and accurate identification and continual monitoring of disease and disease agents, which are so vital in disease prevention. Just as important is how new systems and technologies are applied, which in turn requires that they are linked to effective disease management measures and an appropriate disease management infrastructure.

Some of the most pertinent observations in the Foresight report concerned the situation in developing countries and the need to develop a global infrastructure for disease surveillance and disease management: ‘Many regions of the world do not have the laboratory infrastructure, the human resources or the financial resources to support effective disease surveillance programmes. Yet it is increasingly clear that infectious diseases are a global problem and that surveillance is an international responsibility. Investment by richer countries in surveillance capacity in poorer countries may be a sensible response to this problem.’ It is good to see, with the announcement of this new international research initiative, that some of these arguments seem to have been taken on board.

None of this reduces the need to continue to invest in research in the UK itself, where it is important to retain and develop expertise in endemic as well as ‘exotic’ diseases, along with the infrastructures necessary for detection, identification and monitoring. The Government seems intent on pursuing a more holistic, ‘joined-up’ approach to funding animal disease research, which in many respects is admirable. However, it is important to ensure that, as budgets are realigned and new priorities are set, essential structures are not undermined (see VR, February 6, 2010, vol 166, p 154).

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