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What price disease?

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WHAT are the costs of animal diseases? The question is important, particularly in times of financial austerity, when the costs and benefits of every action must be carefully assessed and financial considerations tend to hold sway. Finding the answer is not so easy, at least, not according to a recent report commissioned by the International Federation for Animal Health (IFAH), which sets out to quantify the costs of animal diseases not just to animals, but to society as a whole.1 The report makes the important point that animal diseases have economic impacts that extend far beyond the direct costs of the disease itself and that, to make progress in controlling diseases and reducing their socioeconomic impacts, more effort and investment must be devoted to strengthening surveillance and developing the infrastructure and systems that are needed to deal with them. In this, the conclusions of the report chime closely with a key message of the plenary Wooldridge Memorial Lecture at this year's BVA Congress, in which David Heymann, discussing the veterinary contribution to public health, pointed out that most of the emerging infectious diseases affecting people originate in animals and that the most effective way of mitigating the risk to humans is to identify new threats and address the issues at source (see p 369 of this issue).

The report was produced for IFAH, which represents manufacturers of veterinary medicines worldwide, by Oxford Analytica, a global analysis and advisory firm. It points out that, despite the importance of animal diseases to human health, comparatively little is known about the actual costs, which can be difficult to estimate globally because livestock product prices and productivity vary widely, as do the costs of resources used for disease monitoring and control. Nevertheless, by focusing on three specific examples – of a disease which affects only animals (foot-and-mouth disease), a disease which is transmitted to animals through food (salmonellosis) and a disease that can be transferred directly from animals to people (rabies) – it gives an indication of the scale and nature of the costs, and where the economic burdens lie. It also highlights gaps in current knowledge.

The costs involved are not inconsiderable. Among those cited in the report are, for salmonella, a total societal cost of US $3 billion annually in the USA alone, and, for foot-and-mouth disease, the US $11.5 billion cost of the 2001 outbreak in the UK. Although it is unable to put such a precise price tag on rabies, the report draws attention to an annual expenditure of US $583.5 million due to rabies in Africa and Asia, and the fact that the disease continues to kill 55,000 people each year, with most of the deaths occurring in these regions.

Among points made in the report are that the types of cost, whether direct or indirect, visible or invisible, vary greatly according to the nature of the disease, and that the situation is dynamic and constantly evolving, with some diseases being managed successfully while other diseases emerge or recur. It also makes the point that, despite some successes, progress in the control of diseases continues to be stifled in many developing areas as a result of weak investment in animal health, lack of capacity and ‘not yet optimal’ governance of food safety. It suggests that there is much to be gained by strengthening surveillance capability and veterinary services in developing countries, and that this would benefit not just those countries but disease prevention globally. Here, too, the conclusions chime with some of the comments made by Professor Heymann at the BVA Congress, as well as by Lord Trees in the congress opening lecture (see p 366).

All in all, the report provides a very useful overview of the difficulties and importance of understanding the costs of animal diseases, which often go unnoticed or tend to get forgotten between headline-grabbing outbreaks, such as the UK foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001. The ongoing challenge is to persuade governments to continue to invest in preventing such outbreaks, and to recognise that there are significant costs associated with other, perhaps less spectacular, diseases that also cause problems and need to be tackled in the meantime.

1. The Costs of Animal Disease. A report produced for the International Federation for Animal Health. Oxford Analytica, October 2012. Available at www.ifahsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Oxford-Analytica-The-Costs-of-Animal-Disease_October2012.pdf

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