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Carry on looking

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NEWS that the AHVLA has detected evidence of acute Schmallenberg virus disease in adult cattle in four counties in southern England (see p 307 of this issue) has once again highlighted the value of veterinary surveillance, both locally and internationally. As the AHVLA points out, the detection of the disease following the recent introduction of an enhanced surveillance initiative by the AHVLA and the Scottish Agricultural College will provide information about where the disease is circulating and allow farmers to plan for any likely impact on their businesses. Surveillance, and the research that underpins it, plays a vital role in efforts to control existing diseases, as well in detecting new ones. Its importance has clearly been demonstrated in the case of Schmallenberg virus, which was discovered in Germany less than a year ago but for which tests have rapidly been made available. This wouldn't have happened if, in Germany and elsewhere, systems weren't in place to detect and report new diseases, and if there wasn't a research infrastructure to support the development of new tests.

A continuing problem for surveillance for new diseases is that, very often, you don't know what you're looking for until you've found it, and what you find depends on how hard you look. Then, once you've found something, the question arises as to what should be done about it. Like any other activity, surveillance costs money, which raises the question of how much money should be spent.

Such issues can be difficult to resolve at the best of times, but the problem becomes more acute when times are hard and, with other activities competing for funds, decisions have to be made about using the available resources to best effect. They have certainly been occupying minds in the UK of late, where, in the past 12 months, against a background of spending cuts, reviews of surveillance arrangements in Scotland and in England and Wales have both suggested significant changes. The aim, ultimately, is to strengthen surveillance. However, change in itself is disruptive and, in this area in particular, there is a need to ensure that there is no weakening of the arrangements as current structures are changed. The report for the review in Scotland, for example, although suggesting that there was scope for rationalising services, made the important point that this would have to be done gradually, without jeopardising delivery of surveillance and in a way that is sensitive to local conditions and needs (VR, November 19, 2011, vol 169, pp 538, 539-540).

Effective surveillance depends on good data. The report of the advisory group reviewing the surveillance arrangements in England and Wales gave a clear indication of what is required, making a number of recommendations aimed at increasing the amount and quality of data obtained across different species, as well as for improving geographical coverage. It also pointed out that surveillance was not just a matter for government, but for society as a whole, arguing that ‘a good model [for surveillance] should be based on systematic engagement of wide sections of society and a partnership approach’ (VR, April 12, 2012, vol 170, pp 400, 402-403).

The idea of partnership working and wider engagement has much to commend it, although in this and other areas questions remain as to how to bring it about. Some of the issues will be discussed at the BVA Congress in Liverpool this weekend, where debates on partnership working and changing mindsets on animal health form part of the programme. Meanwhile, there is more to surveillance than collecting data. The data obtained must also be processed, with the information they yield being shared widely and put to good use. Here, too, there is scope for collaborative working and wider engagement – and a role for the veterinary profession in helping to ensure that the results are usefully applied. Experience with Schmallenberg virus and many other diseases has clearly demonstrated the value of international collaboration and efforts must continue to be coordinated at local, national and international level.

Another problem for surveillance, particularly in the current economic climate, is that, while the immediate costs are easy to calculate, the long-term benefits are harder to quantify. Nevertheless, in a report published at the beginning of this year, the AHVLA estimated that its programme of scanning surveillance, which cost £10 million in 2009/10, but on which spending will be reduced to £6 million by 2014, brought benefits worth over £200 million a year. Surveillance identified the emergence of BSE in the late 1980s and, in more recent years, has been responsible for the early detection of a number of diseases of economic and public health significance. New disease threats will continue to emerge and it remains vital that, as funding is cut, new ways of working are developed and capability is sustained.

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