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Looking ahead to 2008

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2007 was a year dominated by disease outbreaks and consequent restrictions on the movement of animals, but there was some respite in the run-up to Christmas as defra announced that the export restrictions imposed as a result of the foot-and-mouth disease (fmd) outbreaks in Surrey had been lifted, that the remaining restrictions imposed because of the outbreak of h5n1 avian influenza in Suffolk had also been lifted, and that the immediate risk of bluetongue transmission had receded as winter started to bite and the prevalence of the midge vector declined. With the possible exception of bluetongue, where the risk of transmission is seasonal, this had less to do with the approach of the festive season than with the timing of the disease outbreaks and the time needed to deal with them.

The outbreaks of fmd and avian influenza may have been dealt with but, if experience elsewhere in Europe is anything to go by, bluetongue will almost certainly make its presence felt in Great Britain in 2008; indeed, the seriousness with which the Government takes this threat is illustrated by the fact that, just before Christmas, it placed an order for 22·5 million doses of vaccine to help deal with future outbreaks. The vaccine has still to be developed and at this stage it is not clear how it will be used. However, defra hopes it will be available as early as possible this summer for purchase by farmers to help control the impact of bluetongue and ease movement restrictions on vaccinated animals. It is currently working with scientific experts and farming representatives to develop a detailed plan for how a vaccination programme might work. In the meantime, the European Commission will be holding a meeting in Brussels later this month to assess the role that vaccination might play in the control of bluetongue in the eu.

The fact that the midge vector season is considered to be over does not mean that vigilance for bluetongue can be relaxed, as demonstrated by recent incidents in which bluetongue virus has been detected in imported cattle. Such incidents highlight the value of post-import testing and the dangers of importing animals from bluetongue-affected areas.

Bluetongue aside, there will be plenty of other matters on the veterinary agenda in 2008. Not least among these will be bovine tuberculosis (tb) and the need to find a practical way forward following the report last year from the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle tb. Some of the issues surrounding this disease were discussed at last month's meeting of bva Council, where the point was made that, for all the attention necessarily devoted to exotic disease outbreaks in 2007, bovine tb was a continuing problem. Finding solutions was not made any easier by the fact that the scientific evidence was subject to different interpretations, but it was important to develop a veterinary view that could be justified by the facts. The view among Council members was that in areas with a high prevalence of bovine tb the disease could not be eradicated by cattle controls alone, and that it would also be necessary to address the problem in wildlife. One suggestion was that the answer might lie in a regional approach, with different measures applying in different areas. Council members were clear that the isg's report should not mark the end of the scientific debate. They were also clear that important political decisions had to be made and that scientific uncertainty should not be used as an excuse for inaction.

The cost of controlling bovine tb and the various disease outbreaks of recent years has not escaped the notice of the Government, which looks increasingly determined to press forward with its agenda for transferring more of the costs and responsibilities for safeguarding farm animal health and welfare to the industry. This, too, looks set to be a dominant issue in 2008, with defra having recently published a consultation document on the subject (see VR, December 15, 2007, vol 161, p 798). Cost and responsibility sharing was another topic discussed at the bva Council meeting, where concern was expressed about whether farmers could afford to bear more of the costs and about the consequences for animal health and welfare if they could not. Concern was also expressed about the difficulties of persuading farmers to accept responsibility for matters which might be outside their control. The point was made that cost sharing could only work if farmers were paid a fair price for their produce and if producing food to higher animal health and welfare standards brought appropriate financial rewards, which was currently not the case. It was suggested that consumers needed more information about where their food was coming from and that vets had a part to play in this. It was also pointed out that there were opportunities for the profession to help farmers develop schemes to safeguard the health of their animals. Council members were clearly uncomfortable about the proposals on cost sharing, which were felt to be financially driven. However, with the Government keen to pursue other priorities and with constraints on defra's budget, it was clear that someone had to take ownership of animal health and that, as on bovine tb, a veterinary view was needed.

Bluetongue, bovine tb and cost sharing will in themselves make for a busy agenda in 2008. However, as the past 12 months have shown, it is as well to expect the unexpected, and other issues will undoubtedly arise. There will be much to occupy the profession in the months ahead.

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