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AMID further outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease (fmd) and confirmation of the first cases of bluetongue in the uk there is one bit of good news this week: the announcement that the Wellcome Trust is to make £10·7 million available to help train the next generation of veterinary researchers is both welcome and timely (see p 436 of this issue).
As the initiative recognises, veterinary research, involving clinically trained veterinarians, is essential, not just for animal health but to help protect human health, too. This is true not only in areas such as food safety or work on new and emerging diseases, many of which originate in animals, but also in the field of comparative medicine, where extrapolating findings from animals to humans can lead to new approaches to treatment. A ‘whole animal’ approach to research, coupled with a broad perspective on disease, is important here, and veterinarians are well placed to provide it. Meanwhile, a ‘one medicine’ approach is needed to tackle the many disease challenges facing the world, as the American Veterinary Medical Association and the us Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recently highlighted (see VR, July 28, 2007, vol 161, p 109).
Neither bluetongue nor fmd pose a direct threat to human health, but both have significant social and economic consequences. The current outbreaks demonstrate the vital importance and continuing need for research on infectious diseases — whether in the development of vaccines and diagnostic tests, investigating the epidemiology and assessing risks or, as in the case of bluetongue, giving advance warning that an outbreak might occur. An article in The Veterinary Record in March drew attention to the possibility that midges carrying bluetongue virus could be blown over from mainland Europe to the uk this year (VR, March 31, 2007, vol 160, pp 422-426); a paper in August repeated that warning and discussed the clinical signs that might be expected (VR, August 25, 2007, vol 161, pp 253-261).
The Wellcome Trust points out that there is a national need for more veterinary-qualified researchers. This is not the first time that attention has been drawn to this issue. Ten years ago, the Selborne inquiry found that ‘too few veterinarians were engaged in research’ and made a number of recommendations aimed at putting that right. The seriousness of the situation was recognised by the Government in 2004 when, prompted by the experiences of fmd in 2001, it launched a Veterinary Training and Research Initiative, worth £21·5 million over five years, to strengthen training in clinical research and research on infectious diseases of animals. Such work is vital and, looking to the future, it will be important that the Government, too, continues to invest in this area. An article in The Veterinary Record earlier this month highlighted the need continually to invest in veterinary research, and for more veterinarians to be involved (VR, September 15, 2007, vol 161, pp 368-370).
Research will help to provide new solutions in the longer term; more immediately, attention must focus on dealing with the current disease outbreaks and applying the tools to hand. In the case of bluetongue, these are somewhat limited. The imposition of further movement controls following the appearance of the disease in Suffolk, while necessary, places an additional burden on farmers already hard-pressed as a result of the restrictions imposed because of the outbreaks of fmd in Surrey. Every effort must continue to be made to contain these outbreaks; in addition, there is a need to increase surveillance for bluetongue, to determine just how widespread the problem is. defra urges farmers to practise the highest standards of biosecurity, maintain vigilance for the two diseases and report any suspicions immediately.
Having devoted much attention to contingency planning over the past few years, defra finds itself in the unenviable position of having to deal with two notifiable disease outbreaks at once. As it seeks to develop an integrated strategy, it looks increasingly likely that it will need more veterinary manpower. Animal Health indicated earlier this week that it would shortly be contacting veterinary practices to seek support from local veterinary inspectors for help in its field operations should this become necessary. The Government was criticised for being slow to seek additional veterinary assistance during the fmd outbreak in 2001. It would be unfortunate if this, and the arrangements in place, should again prove to be an issue in 2007.
In a further significant development this week, the European Commission published a new Community Animal Health Policy, setting out a strategy to apply from 2007 to 2013 (see pp 435-436 of this issue). According to the Commission, the strategy heralds a new approach to animal disease control in the eu, with increased emphasis on prevention by strengthening biosecurity, surveillance and research. As is so often the case the devil will be in the detail but, at times like this, one can't help feeling a fresh approach is needed.