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Surveillance under scrutiny

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IT's nine years since, after a lengthy consultation, Defra published a strategy for veterinary surveillance in the UK and almost a year since it reported on the progress that had been made (VR, February 12, 2011, vol 168, p 144). Now it looks as if the approach to obtaining surveillance data in England and Wales could be about to change, probably pretty soon. Last week, the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) announced that it had asked an independent advisory group chaired by Dirk Pfeiffer, of the Royal Veterinary College, to recommend a future delivery model for veterinary surveillance in England and Wales and to report to the AHVLA's veterinary director by early March (see p 35 of this issue).

In developing its advice, the advisory group has been asked to take full account of an internal report on scanning surveillance, which was finalised last April and has now been published. The AHVLA believes that, as things stand, too much potentially valuable intelligence data is not being adequately captured for disease surveillance purposes, and that, by working in partnership, options are available for achieving better surveillance at lower cost. The report suggests a change in emphasis in scanning surveillance – from relying so heavily on postmortem examinations to detect new disease threats, to more systematic engagement with stakeholders. The aim of the new model, which would involve a geographically distributed network of vets to conduct on-farm investigations and engage with stakeholders, would be to generate surveillance intelligence as well as samples for investigation; thus, the AHVLA suggests, surveillance could be underpinned by an intelligence network that is supported by a quality-assured diagnostic capability, including quality-assured postmortem examination.

The AHVLA says it wants to undertake surveillance more effectively and at a more affordable cost to the taxpayer, and there can be little doubt that its review of surveillance is in part being financially driven. In a question and answer document about the review on its website, it states that the scanning surveillance programme in England and Wales cost about £10 million in 2009/10 and will reduce to £6 million by 2014. The shape of surveillance in future seems also likely to be determined by progress in the ongoing debate about partnership working and responsibility and cost sharing, with vets and farmers both contributing to and benefiting from surveillance, which is clearly also in the public interest – and effective partnership working will be a crucial element of the approach being considered.

The AHVLA also published this week the results of some market research it conducted early last year seeking views on surveillance from a small sample of practising vets. From the middle of this month, it plans to conduct an online survey, for a three-week period, seeking views from vets and farmers on the inputs, mechanisms, outputs and value of surveillance in England and Wales.

The model already proposed might raise concerns about the future provision of postmortem facilities in the AHVLA's network of regional laboratories, but the AHVLA's question and answer document states that the project is not simply a cover for the closure of postmortem sites. Its internal report makes clear that quality-assured postmortem examination of carcases is important to surveillance, having provided the first indication of 75 of 117 new or emerging hazards detected by scanning surveillance since 2007.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of scanning surveillance, which, as the AHVLA points out, identified the emergence of BSE and, in recent years, has been responsible for the early detection of pandemic H1N1 influenza in pigs, four notifiable avian disease outbreaks, bovine tuberculosis in non-bovine species, antimicrobial resistance in Salmonella and virulent psoroptic mange in cattle, as well as providing reassurance of the national animal health status that has supported trade. Its internal report suggests that the value of its surveillance programme has greatly exceeded the costs in recent years, with monetised benefits having been estimated at over £200 million a year. New disease threats continue to emerge, as illustrated by the recent emergence of Schmallenberg virus in the Netherlands and Germany (see p 36 of this issue).

Defra's progress report last February suggested that some compromises might have to be made in surveillance but, if anything, it made a pretty good case for doing more. With fewer resources, the challenge remains of how to strengthen surveillance or, at the very least, ensure that current capability is maintained.

■ Details of the AHVLA's review and the associated reports are available at http://vla.defra.gov.uk/science/sci_surv_model.htm

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