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Staying prepared

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IT IS almost a decade since, on February 20, 2001, foot-and-mouth disease was confirmed in a group of pigs at an Essex abattoir, providing the first indication of an outbreak that was to engulf Great Britain for the best part of the year. Important lessons were learned from that outbreak, not least that with FMD, perhaps even more than other diseases, prevention is better than the available control measures. The threat of FMD has not disappeared since 2001, as a letter from the Chief Veterinary Officer on p 136 of this issue, discussing current outbreaks in Bulgaria and Korea, makes clear.

Also in this issue, in a paper summarised on p 128, J. Ellis-Iversen and colleagues discuss the results of a case-control study carried out during a more recent UK FMD outbreak – the outbreak in Surrey in 2007. The 2007 outbreak was less extensive and was contained much more quickly than the outbreak of 2001, but was highly disruptive nevertheless. The study by Dr Ellis-Iversen and colleagues, which is reported in full at, investigated risk factors for transmission of infection between farms. Their paper underlines the importance of on-farm biosecurity in preventing infection and provides information that should help in the management of future outbreaks.

Continued vigilance and veterinary surveillance for FMD and other infectious viral diseases is vital, but it is also important to have contingency plans in place to deal with an outbreak when it occurs. These plans must be kept up to date and regularly tested, and the latest exercise to test Britain's preparedness for an FMD outbreak – ‘Exercise Silver Birch’ – was held by Defra in November last year. Defra's report on the outcome of the exercise is still awaited but, in the meantime, the BVA's impressions on how well it went are outlined in an article in BVA News on p 139.

Some of the issues identified by the BVA will be familiar to those who were involved in the FMD outbreak of 2001 and, indeed, have cropped up more than once in various other real disease outbreaks and disease simulation exercises since (see, for example, VR, October 20, 2007, 161, p 537). They include the need to clarify arrangements for the recruitment and deployment of the extra Official Veterinarians that are needed to help deal with a large-scale outbreak. This is something that should happen in ‘peace time’, not when an outbreak is happening. It was an issue in the early stages of the outbreak in 2001 and it is worrying that it still seems to be an issue 10 years later, particularly in view of the changes in veterinary practice that have occurred in the interim.

Also of concern is that the exercise identified a need to educate the food industry and consumers about the pros and cons of vaccinating animals against FMD, and the role that vaccination can play alongside culling to control and eradicate the disease. The inability to vaccinate animals because of the implications for trade caused difficulties and proved highly controversial in 2001, to the extent that international rules have since been changed and specific provision for emergency vaccination is now made in contingency plans. Ten years on, it remains important that the issues surrounding vaccination are fully understood, especially if, as recommended by the official inquiries after the outbreak, a ‘vaccination to live’ policy is to be implemented. In this context, it is perhaps fitting that the Scottish Government, NFU Scotland and the Moredun Research Institute plan to mark the 10th anniversary by holding an expert meeting on this topic in March.

The National Audit Office estimated in 2005 that the 2001 FMD outbreak cost British taxpayers more than £3 billion, and put the costs to the wider economy at about £5 billion. It is because the economic and other consequences are so serious that prevention and surveillance are so necessary and, in view of this, news of impending changes to the Veterinary Laboratories Agency's programme of scanning surveillance, including a reduction in the number of its regional laboratories (see p 117 of this issue), must be viewed with concern. Scanning surveillance played an essential role in detecting BSE in the late 1980s – a disease of public health as well as animal health significance that turned out to be costly in its own right. The Government may be committed to reducing public spending but it should be aware that, in the long run, skimping on surveillance could prove to be very expensive indeed.

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