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Ready to vaccinate?

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ONE thing that everyone agreed on at an EU conference held in Brussels in the immediate aftermath of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001 was that the experiences of that year should not be repeated and that alternative approaches for dealing with the disease were needed (VR, January 12, 2002, vol 150, p 29). An important outcome of that meeting was that EU legislation and international trade rules were subsequently amended to allow more flexibility in controlling FMD. As a result, emergency protective vaccination is now included as a control option in UK contingency plans. The question is, will it actually be used?

The question is important, not just in disease control terms, but also in terms of public opinion. However well founded, the decision not to employ vaccination in the UK proved controversial in 2001, and could do so again unless all the issues are widely understood. There was also controversy in the Netherlands, where animals were vaccinated, but ended up being slaughtered anyway. In view of this, it is appropriate that the Scottish Government, NFU Scotland and the Moredun Research Institute should have marked the 10th anniversary of the 2001 outbreak with a meeting earlier this week on the subject of FMD ‘vaccination to live’. Bringing together FMD experts, vets, producers, meat processors, retailers and other stakeholders, the meeting served to highlight where progress has been made since 2001, and how much has still to be resolved.

Among the many points made at the meeting was that, despite the many strains of FMD virus and the difficulty in predicting where the next outbreak will come from, it was unlikely that effective vaccines would not be available in the event of an outbreak. Vaccines could be formulated quickly and available for deployment if required. Also available were pen-side tests to help in the diagnosis of FMD, as were the tests needed for surveillance after an outbreak, including tests that could differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals.

As to whether vaccination would in fact be deployed, the answer seemed to be that it might be, but probably on a limited scale and only in specific circumstances. A decision would have to be made early in the outbreak and would have to consider a number of variables, including what animals to vaccinate (both species and type), when to vaccinate and where. The decision would be made by ministers, presumably on the basis of scientific and veterinary advice. Epidemiological and economic modelling could help inform the decision; however, there might only be a small window of opportunity to employ vaccination effectively, and the decision might have to be made before all the necessary information was available. A decision to vaccinate would require commitment from everyone involved, and decisive action would need to follow.

Inevitably, logistical and economic considerations would need to be taken into account. The meeting heard how the inclusion of vaccination could add to the operational complexity and resources needed to deal with an outbreak and, worryingly, how not enough vets might be available to help meet licensing requirements and carry out the extra surveillance that would be involved. In financial terms, there was a need to consider the costs to government and the costs to farmers. This included relative costs in terms of lost trade, although the point was made during the meeting that ‘It's not vaccination that kills your trade; it's foot-and-mouth disease.’

Questions were raised, too, about whether the meat processing industry was in a position to meet all the requirements for dealing with meat from vaccinated animals, and whether markets would exist for the finished product. Consumer resistance to meat from vaccinated animals was considered to present a problem and perhaps some research should be conducted to see how big a problem this is. One thing that was clear in 2001 was that there was also resistance to large-scale slaughter of animals.

Summing up the proceedings, Julie Fitzpatrick, chief executive of the Moredun Group, noted that, thanks to research, the tools and technology for ‘vaccination to live’ were in place; what was missing were clear policies and strategies to employ it. Contingency planning did not mean having a plan for everything, but it did mean being prepared for anything.

Meetings like this should be held more often. Clear strategies on vaccination need to be developed in conjunction with all stakeholders and widely communicated, explaining clearly why, and in what circumstances, it may or may not be used. Importantly, this needs to be done in advance, not while an outbreak is happening.

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