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Could we spot the next BSE?, asks BVA President

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CONCERN about the robustness of the surveillance network in England and Wales was expressed by the BVA President, John Blackwell, in his speech to the Association's annual London dinner last week.

Mr Blackwell said that, while the BVA understood the need for rationalisation and efficiency, it was concerned that the surveillance system that had been relied on in recent years was being dismantled without the replacement being properly tested. If information coming from postmortem examinations was not systematically and consistently fed into a central data collection point, it would be ‘a lot harder to join the dots’ and to spot a problem, something that was the ‘very foundation of a robust surveillance system’.

‘If there is now a risk that we have a less responsive and accurate diagnosis system, a system that is as yet not joined up and integrated, we leave ourselves vulnerable, less able to spot new and emerging diseases and act quickly to contain them’

As well as identifying known threats, a robust surveillance mechanism needed to identify the unknowns: ‘If there is now a risk that we have a less responsive and accurate diagnosis system, a system that is as yet not joined up and integrated, we leave ourselves vulnerable, less able to spot new and emerging diseases and act quickly to contain them,’ said Mr Blackwell. ‘This risk is multiplied if the network of surveillance – that strategic ability to horizon scan – is patchy. We fear this may now be the case. Soon after I qualified back in 1985, BSE was effectively diagnosed because of our network of surveillance laboratories. A network that allowed us to grasp and understand the emerging threat and identify the unknown risk. Are we confident we have the systems in place to spot the next emergent threat, the next BSE?’

The London dinner, which was held at One Great George Street on February 3, is one of four that the BVA holds in each region of the UK each year. The aim is to bring issues of importance to the veterinary profession to the attention of policymakers, the agriculture industry and others with an interest in animal welfare.

Despite concern about the surveillance network, Mr Blackwell said that opportunities for vets were emerging, and the profession was adapting to the challenge and seizing the initiative. As an example, he referred to the consortium of independent vets and practices in Wales, which had recently been awarded a contract to provide postmortem examination services within an hour's drive from the former APHA veterinary investigation centre in Aberystwyth (VR, January 3, 2015, vol 176, p 5). ‘Such nimble and expert local knowledge combined with a robust and strategic surveillance network is a powerful combination in fighting disease,’ he said.

Fundamental changes were also being experienced in the working arrangements for Official Veterinarians (OVs), said Mr Blackwell, and concern about the APHA's tendering exercise for the provision of OV services was ‘still live’ for vets. The BVA had been heartened by the award of the two lots in Wales to local veterinary practitioner-led consortia, but could not and would not comment on the outcome of the tender exercise in England while this was subject to legal proceedings (VR, January 31, 2015, vol 176, p 109) but, he said, ‘I do want to take this opportunity to remind this audience that BVA opposed the tender system because of our fears that it would undermine a network of disease detection anchored in the local vet/farmer relationship. As a profession we believe passionately – even more so for those of us who work with livestock – that whatever the eventual outcomes of the tender, we have to work with government and ultimately any new Delivery Partner, whoever that may be, to preserve that local knowledge and understanding, that relationship of trust and respect between the farmer and the vet who knows and understands the herd. This is critical for not just disease detection but for disease prevention.’

Turning to bovine TB, Mr Blackwell said that the BVA continued to support the Government's comprehensive strategy to control and eradicate the disease. In April, the BVA's Council would be considering what had been learned from the pilot badger culls so far but, whatever the outcome of that meeting – and whatever the outcome of the General Election in May – the Association knew that it, and the veterinary profession, would need to work with government and the farming industry to find a way to beat the disease.

Non-stun slaughter

The BVA would also be ‘knocking on the door’ of the next government to ensure that welfare at slaughter was at the top of its agenda, said Mr Blackwell. It would be doing all it could to ensure that a full parliamentary debate of the issue took place. The BVA's e-petition calling for an end to non-stun slaughter on animal welfare grounds had surpassed the 100,000 signatures needed for it to be considered for a debate in Parliament, and, he said, ‘no one should ignore the strength of public feeling about this issue’. He added: ‘It is one of those moments when we really have worked together, the veterinary profession, animal welfare groups – particularly our colleagues and friends at the RSPCA – and the public, to drive a change we want to see.’ However, this was not the end of the matter; rather, it was the start of a new phase of the campaign. The BVA also recognised that, for some, an end to non-stun slaughter would be ‘a profoundly felt loss’ but, he said, ‘that does not mean ending non-stun slaughter is not the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do.’

Regardless of which party or parties formed the Government after the May elections, the BVA was keen to see it support and recognise the benefits of responsible pet ownership for the health and wellbeing of owners and the wider benefits for society. ‘From the work of assistance dogs to the benefits of elderly people in care being able to keep a loved pet close by, this is one of those policy briefs where the words “joy” and “happiness” are not extraneous or superfluous but right at the heart of what we are working towards,’ he said. He also encouraged the next Government to put on its agenda the recommendations made recently by the All-Party Group for Animal Welfare for improving dog welfare (VR, December 13, 2014, vol 175, p 577). Other issues the BVA would be pressing the next Government on included updating the current horse passport system and banning the use of wild animals in travelling circuses.

Mr Blackwell also discussed the Vet Futures project being driven jointly by the BVA and the RCVS (VR, February 7, 2015, vol 176, p 132). This aimed to help understand where the provision of veterinary services was currently heading and whether the direction of travel was in the best interests of the profession, animal owners and the wider public. It would then look at what might be done to shape the best possible future for the veterinary profession, keeping animal health and welfare at its heart.

Minister's speech

Neil Parish, chair of the All-Party Group for Animal Welfare and an honorary member of the BVA, read out a speech at the dinner on behalf of Lord de Mauley, parliamentary undersecretary of state for natural environment and science, who was unable to attend.

On the issue of non-stun slaughter, Mr Parish reported the minister as saying that the Government would prefer to see all animals stunned before slaughter, but that it respected the rights of Jewish and Muslim communities to eat meat prepared in accordance with their religious beliefs. It was aware of calls for meat from animals that had not been stunned to be labelled and supported the need for accurate information for consumers. It would look into labelling options in light of the results of an EU study due later this year, he said.

Regarding the activities of veterinary paraprofessionals, Defra had been looking at this through an industry-wide project known as the Review of Minor Procedures Regime. The project built on the recommendations made by the Veterinary Development Council to consider appropriate mechanisms that would allow suitably trained lay people to carry out minor acts of veterinary surgery. Over the past two years, it had been gathering views and evidence about where flaws might lie in the current system and about what was important to retain in any new framework. This had been a ‘long but necessary’ first step and there was now a substantial amount of input upon which the Government could start developing options on how it would like the future to look.

With regard to companion animal issues, the Government believed that more could be done to tackle the illegal trade in puppies being imported to the UK under the cover of the European Pet Travel Scheme. Cooperation across the EU was needed to clamp down on illegal activity in countries where the puppies were born; as an example of this, the Dogs Trust's recent report on the issue (VR, November 22, 2014, vol 175, pp 493-494) had resulted in the authorities in Hungary and Lithuania taking prompt action against people found to have been acting illegally, and highlighted why it was important to continue to raise instances of where the scheme was being abused. Meanwhile, government, the veterinary community and welfare charities needed to continue to work together to help the British public understand the consequences of their choices when purchasing a puppy.

John Blackwell (right), the BVA President, with Nigel Gibbens (left), the Chief Veterinary Officer, and Neil Parish MP, at the BVA's London dinner last week

Safeguarding animal health and welfare remained of paramount importance to the Government, the minister was reported as saying. It believed that, in the face of continued financial pressures throughout the UK, it was ‘now more imperative than ever to develop new and efficient ways of working’.

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