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Filling a gap on surveillance

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IT would be hard to disagree with the aims of the new model for scanning surveillance in England and Wales currently being proposed by the AHVLA. Nor could one disagree with the principles set out in the report of the independent Surveillance Advisory Group (SAG), which led to the model being developed (VR, April 21, 2012, vol 170, pp 400, 402-403). In the words of the AHVLA, the project aims to create ‘a new, more effective and financially sustainable surveillance system, including improving access through better geographical coverage, through better partnership working and by developing deeper specialist skills and knowledge’. The question that must be asked as the AHVLA consults on its proposals (see VR, December 22/29, 2012, vol 171, pp 634-635) is whether the proposed model meets the requirements for surveillance as set out by the advisory group and, perhaps more importantly, whether the aims will actually be achieved.

There were some good ideas in the SAG's report. However, it would be easier to feel comfortable about the AHVLA's review if it were not so obviously being driven by the need to save money, and to do so soon. It might just possibly be true, as the consultation suggests, that ‘improved surveillance can be achieved at a lower, and affordable, cost to the taxpayer, primarily through a reduction in the AHVLA's infrastructure and overheads’. However, this will require an alternative structure to be developed in the meantime and, given the ongoing importance of surveillance to animal and public health, it would seem important that this is up and running, and known to be working, before the existing structure is disposed of. Too many decisions these days are being made on budgetary grounds, without enough thought for the practical consequences.

A potentially positive aspect of the proposals is the aim of extending the reach of surveillance by involving more stakeholders. It is also suggested that geographical access to postmortem facilities could be improved by the provision of carcase collection centres and delivery services. The clear downside, however, is that the involvement of AHVLA veterinary staff in conducting postmortem examinations would be reduced, as would the number of AHVLA centres. AHVLA postmortem facilities are currently available at 15 sites. Under three example scenarios discussed in the consultation document, this number would be cut by more than half, to between five and seven. The influence of budgetary pressures is clearly demonstrated in the discussion of these scenarios, which makes clear that decisions will inevitably involve some kind of trade off between overall costs, local livestock density and carcase journey times. It is also evident in the discussion of the future responsibilities of AHVLA staff, which considers the savings that could be made from fewer postmortem examinations, fewer free follow-up laboratory tests and a more risk-based approach to testing.

The idea is to maintain and strengthen AHVLA expertise in pathology by concentrating staff in a few high-throughput centres and that ‘AHVLA veterinary staff will spend less time on the provision of a diagnostic function, and more time on systematic engagement with other data providers and integration of this data to bring best value’. However, the question arises as to how well they will be able to maintain this engagement if they are not directly involved in diagnosis. As with any reorganisation on such a scale, there must also be concern that existing expertise will be lost.

The consultation document suggests that the proposed way of delivering surveillance offers ‘significant opportunities’ for the private sector and seeks ideas on how ‘veterinary practitioners, universities and livestock organisations can work in partnership with the AHVLA to ensure that we make the best use of all available skills and resources to ensure protection of our animal populations and public health’. Some of those opportunities will be new, but others will concern activities that the AHVLA may no longer be in a position to carry out itself. It can be hard to convince people of the need for scanning surveillance, which essentially involves looking for problems you don't know are there and which may then have to be solved once you've found them. Nevertheless, it remains vitally important. There is a ‘public good’ element to surveillance which has been consistently underestimated by successive governments and certainly seems to be being underestimated now. There is a need to strengthen surveillance through wider engagement and, as the AHVLA's role changes, it must be hoped the private sector will indeed feel able to help fill the gap.

■ The AHVLA's consultation document – Surveillance 2014 and beyond. A consultation on the future delivery of scanning surveillance for animal related threats in England and Wales – is available at Comments have been invited by February 15.

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