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Networks and infrastructure

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AFTER months in which government announcements on animal health seem to have been about reorganisation and cutbacks and little else, news of an international initiative to help in the fight against infectious diseases is welcome. It is five years now since a report produced under the UK Government's Foresight programme identified the need to develop a global infrastructure for disease surveillance and management as an essential element in the fight against diseases affecting animals and people (VR, May 6, 2006, vol 158, p 605) and, in this respect, the announcement by Defra this week of a new global network to help coordinate research on animal diseases clearly represents a step in the right direction. The initiative is welcome not only because it recognises that science is, as the Foresight report put it, ‘a powerful tool in the battle’ against current and future diseases, but also because it recognises that tackling diseases effectively requires international collaboration and investment and can never simply be a matter of countries closing their borders and trying to keep diseases out.

Defra reports that it will be leading the new network, which is being funded by the EU to the tune of €1 million. In many respects, it will be similar to the EMIDA network (www.emida-era.net) which was set up three years ago with similar funding from the EU, to coordinate European research on emerging and major infectious diseases of livestock (VR, August 23, 2008, vol 163, pp 229–230). Established to help coordinate activity among research funders, the EMIDA programme involves 27 partners and four associated partners from 19 countries with a combined research budget of about €270 million. In 2009, it issued its first common call for research funding applications, resulting in the funding of 12 projects with a combined value of €21 million, and a second call was issued earlier this year.

The new global network – STAR-IDAZ (for STrategic Alliance for the coordination of Research on major Infectious Diseases of Animals and Zoonoses) – will include Canada, the USA, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Denmark and the UK. It will be divided into three regions – the Americas, Asia and Australasia, and Europe – and surrounding countries are expected to feed in. It is hoped that an Africa region will follow.

Commenting on the new network earlier this week, Jim Paice, the UK agriculture minister, said, ‘In this modern age of globalised trade and travel, the risk of animal disease entering the UK is greater than ever. We already have comprehensive international surveillance and outbreak plans, but we must prepare for the challenges in five, 10 and 15 years’ time. Countries acting on their own just don't have the resources to research every disease, all of the time, so sharing resources like this will get us maximum protection and value for money.'

Nigel Gibbens, the UK's chief veterinary officer, added, ‘Global coordination of our animal disease research efforts will help ensure that new technologies, such as diagnostic tools, vaccines and new treatments, are identified and put to work as quickly as possible to make a real difference to the health, welfare and productivity of livestock.’

Internationally coordinated research into existing, emerging and re-emerging diseases is vital but, as the Foresight report pointed out five years ago, equally important is the context in which new technologies are applied. This point was underlined by a report on H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza published by the Food and Agriculture Organization last month, which makes the point that, despite the attention devoted to this disease and the progress that has been made, the virus remains ‘entrenched’ in at least six countries and could take several years, if not decades, to eliminate.* The reason, the FAO suggests, relates to three main factors: the structure of the local poultry sectors; the quality of public and private veterinary and animal production services, which are not always able to respond to infections or to identify and correct underlying structural problems in production and marketing systems; and the level of commitment to dealing with the virus.

Infectious diseases such as avian influenza are a global problem and, internationally, effort also needs to be devoted to building the veterinary capacity and infrastructure that is needed to tackle them effectively at source.

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