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Much to report in 2011

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THERE have been some important developments and significant anniversaries over the past 12 months. Ultimately, however, 2011 will probably be best remembered as the year in which the world was officially declared to be free of rinderpest. Rinderpest, also known as cattle plague, has been a scourge of livestock and the people who depend on them for thousands of years, and has changed the course of history on more than one occasion. It is the first disease of animals to have been eradicated through human effort and, after smallpox, only the second disease to have been eradicated worldwide. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) adopted a resolution declaring that the world was free of rinderpest on May 25 and eradication was confirmed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) at the end of June.

2011 was celebrated as World Veterinary Year, marking the 250th anniversary of the modern veterinary profession, following the establishment of the world's first veterinary school in Lyon in 1761. It is fitting that it was also the year in which rinderpest was officially eradicated; giving the plenary Wooldridge Memorial Lecture at the BVA Congress in September, Peter Roeder described the eradication as arguably the most remarkable achievement of the veterinary profession in its history (VR, December 17, 2011, vol 169, pp 650–653).

There were no significant viral disease outbreaks in the UK in 2011, but the year provided a poignant reminder that another scourge of livestock remains. On February 20, it was 10 years to the day since foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) was discovered in a group of pigs by a vet in an Essex abattoir, providing the first indication of an epidemic that was to engulf Great Britain for the best part of 2001. Important lessons were learned as a result of the 2001 FMD epidemic, most notably, perhaps, that with diseases like FMD, prevention is better than cure, and that veterinary surveillance and the ability to mount a fast and efficient response to any outbreak is vital. It is easy to forget this between disease outbreaks. However, coinciding with the anniversary, outbreaks of FMD in Bulgaria and swine fever in Russia provided a tangible reminder of the need to remain vigilant and prepared.

A plaque is unveiled at the FAO's headquarters in Rome to commemorate global freedom from rinderpest

Photograph: FAO/Giulio Napolitano

April 2011 saw the launch of a new government agency, the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA), potentially leading to changes in the way that disease surveillance and other activities relating to animal health and welfare in Great Britain are organised. The agency was formed as a result of a merger between the agency Animal Health and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) following a review of arm's length bodies undertaken by the Government in 2010. It combines the investigative and surveillance functions of the VLA with the operational functions of Animal Health and – with Defra committed to reducing its spending by 30 per cent over the next four years – it will be important to see that capability in these areas is maintained.

On being launched, the AHVLA denied that the merger was simply a cost-saving measure, suggesting instead that ‘the main rationale is to improve the resilience of the combined agency to continue to deliver an effective and professional service in the light of the Government's spending review’. Meanwhile, its corporate plan mentioned the word ‘challenging’ several times and included the statement ‘the body that leaves its first year will look very different to how it was at the start of the year’. It's early days yet, but news in September that the agency will be stopping laboratory testing work at several of its laboratories in England and Wales is worrying, and raises concerns about what other changes might be in store.

Also in September, the AHVLA launched a consultation seeking views on its proposed approach to the introduction of competitive tendering for the provision of TB testing services in England, as well as a consultation on developing new ways of working with farm animal vets. In addition, it invited businesses to tender for the provision of veterinary reserve personnel and/or veterinary experts to help meet demands during exotic disease outbreaks. The application of a tendering process to secure the services of private practitioners to undertake official veterinary functions on behalf of the state marks a significant departure from the way such services have been procured in the past, and provides just one example of the changing relationship between practitioners and the state.

In April, the Government announced plans to establish an Animal Health and Welfare Board for England, to take strategic oversight of animal health policy and delivery in England and provide direct advice to ministers. The board has been constituted along the lines recommended by a review undertaken by a committee chaired by Rosemary Radcliffe in 2010 on how cost and responsibility sharing should be taken forward, and will be responsible, among other things, for developing key policies on animal health and how they should be funded. Jim Paice, the agriculture minister, described the board as ‘a completely new way of working’. Members of the board have since been appointed and it held its first meeting in November.

Debate on bovine TB again tended to be dominated by the question of whether badger culling should be included in the ‘toolbox’ of measures that might be applied to help control the disease in cattle. In Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government started the year apparently determined to press ahead with a government-managed cull of badgers in a defined intensive action area; however, after elections and a change of government in May, a decision was put on hold pending a further review of the scientific evidence. A decision was expected by the end of the year, but is still awaited.

In England, badger culling had been ruled out by the previous government. However, the change of government in May 2010 heralded a possible change of approach and, after two consultations and some delay, ministers have decided that culling should be tested in two areas of England in the autumn of 2012 (see p 668 of this issue). The BVA has welcomed the announcement, having long argued that decisions should be science based, that there is no single solution to bovine TB and that it cannot be tackled effectively without measures to control the disease in wildlife as well as cattle.

Defra announced in July that Britain's pet travel rules would change from January 1, 2012, bringing them into line with those in the rest of the European Union. The pet travel rules are primarily aimed at preventing the introduction of rabies. However, most attention over the past year has focused on concerns that a rule requiring dogs to be treated against tapeworms just before entering the UK might be dropped as the arrangements were harmonised. There were good reasons to be concerned. The worming requirement is intended to prevent the introduction into the UK of Echinococcus multilocularis, a zoonotic parasite that can prove fatal in humans and which, if it were to become established in wildlife, would be almost impossible to eradicate. Fortunately, after some coordinated lobbying and a careful assessment of the evidence, the EU agreed that the UK and other member states that are free of the parasite could continue to require dogs to be wormed.

Antimicrobial resistance was the subject of much attention during 2011, as illustrated in April when the World Health Organization made it the subject of World Health Day, using the slogan ‘No action today, no cure tomorrow’, and also in November when the European Commission announced a 12-point action plan to tackle the problem. From a veterinary perspective, not all of this attention was favourable, with, for example, a move in the European Parliament that might have prevented vets from selling medicines directly to farmers and a call from MEPs to ban prophylactic use, as well as continuing calls for the use of certain antibiotics to be banned in animals to help preserve their efficacy for use in human medicine. There are good biological reasons for using antimicrobials responsibly in people and animals, and it is obviously important to preserve their efficacy for use in people. However, in the current political climate, it is becoming increasingly important for veterinarians to be seen to be using antimicrobials responsibly and, with the EU currently in the process of reviewing veterinary medicines legislation, to make the case that products must continue to be available for use in animals too.

In June, the Government published a white paper on higher education, avowing that the proposed reforms would ‘put students at the heart of the system’. However, the white paper did little to allay concerns among students and others about the impact that the higher tuition fees announced by the Government in 2010 might have on the career choices made by students. This issue is of particular concern for the veterinary profession because the length and intensive nature of the veterinary course mean that debts on graduation are likely to be higher than for students in other disciplines. This could undermine efforts to attract students from a wider range of social backgrounds onto the veterinary course. It could also result in fewer veterinary graduates pursuing a career in research or in some of the potentially less lucrative areas of practice where their skills are nevertheless needed.

On a more positive note, the University of Nottingham produced its first crop of veterinary graduates in 2011, having taken in its first students five years ago. The Nottingham degree has been recognised by the RCVS for registration purposes, bringing the total number of veterinary schools in Britain to seven.

Animal disease research received a fillip in December with an announcement that the Government is to invest £80 million to help construct a new facility for research into avian diseases at the Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright. The new facility will complement a high containment research facility already being built on the site, and should allow essential work to continue on avian and other animal diseases that have an impact worldwide.

Veterinary nurses celebrated an anniversary in 2011 – 50 years since the introduction of veterinary nurse training in 1961. Events were held throughout the year and, at a reception in the House of Commons in October, Liz Branscombe, chair of the RCVS Veterinary Nurses Council, made use of the occasion to call for statutory regulation of veterinary nurses. April saw the introduction of a non-statutory disciplinary process for registered veterinary nurses; this is seen as an important step towards veterinary nursing becoming a fully fledged profession.

The RCVS was active on a number of fronts, consulting, for example, on a new draft Code of Professional Conduct for Veterinary Surgeons, a new draft Code of Professional Conduct for Veterinary Nurses, and a draft performance protocol intended to form part of the guidance supporting the new codes. It also sought views on proposals for simplifying the system of veterinary specialist qualifications. In November, after a review identified weaknesses in the College's governance arrangements for capital projects, the RCVS said that it would be giving priority to a recommendation that it should set up an audit and risk committee to oversee internal and external audit procedures.

At the BVA, voting got under way in January to elect members to a new-look Council, the structure of which had been agreed at the Association's annual general meeting in 2010. The new Council is smaller than the previous version, but intended to be more representative of the BVA's membership as a whole. More than 30 per cent of members voted in the election, and the new Council met for the first time in April.

January also saw the inaugural meeting of the Veterinary Development Council, which has been established by the BVA on the basis of a recommendation in the Lowe report of 2009, aimed at enhancing veterinary involvement in the food chain. Made up of representatives from across the food supply chain, the Council is examining the market for veterinary services in the food chain and the specific role that vets can play. Chaired by Richard Bennett, of the University of Reading, the council has set up a number of working groups which are expected to report next year. The Lowe report raised important issues, and some of these were explored in a series of articles in Veterinary Record, starting in September this year (see VR, September 17, 2011, vol 169, p 294).

Veterinary Record adopted a new format for publishing research in 2011. Since the beginning of January, research papers have been published in full online, with detailed summaries appearing in the print journal. The change allows Veterinary Record to publish research findings more quickly than previously, while making them more accessible to a wider professional readership, and seems to have been well received. The content of the journal continues to be developed, with the inclusion this year of regular scientific editorials, along with more feature articles, news and views. In September, Professor Sandy Trees took up the post of Veterinary Editor-in-Chief. This is a new post and the appointment of Professor Trees can be expected to enhance the content of Veterinary Record further.

As this brief and necessarily selective review has indicated, there has been much for this journal to report on over the past 12 months. Many of the issues have still to be resolved and we will continue to keep readers up to date with developments in 2012.

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