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Private practice, public good

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IN November last year the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England (AHWBE) issued a ‘call for views’ on new ways of working to tackle bovine TB. It might equally have been described as a call to arms because, as the board pointed out at the time, ‘we are not winning the war on bovine TB’; the disease situation was getting worse and, with the annual costs to Defra expected to rise to more than £120 million by 2015, the position was unsustainable and new approaches would have to be found (VR, September 15, 2012, vol 171, pp 256, 258). Whatever the best way to describe it, the AHWBE's consultation exercise attracted a wide variety of ideas – such a variety, in fact, that one wonders how the board will make sense of them all. Nevertheless, as the body charged with determining strategic policy for animal health and welfare in England, the AHWBE says it will continue to reflect on the responses received as it develops its advice to Defra ministers.

The board recently published a summary of the responses (VR, January 26, 2013, vol 172, p 87). This serves to illustrate not only the wide range of views on how best to tackle bovine TB, but also the scale of the task ahead. This, in turn, must partly reflect the complexity of the disease itself. A range of cattle-based controls are discussed in the summary, such as increasing the sensitivity and efficiency of TB testing, reducing the risks associated with cattle movements and speeding up the removal of reactors. Inevitably, given that an important part of the AHBWE's brief is to take forward plans for responsibility and cost sharing, there is also consideration of who should pay for what. However, from the point of view of veterinary practices, and despite the variety of views discussed, some of the most interesting remarks relate to the relationship between vets and farmers, and the role that might be played by private vets.

‘There was,’ the AHWBE reports, ‘overwhelming support for enhancing the existing relationship between farmers and private vets, for several reasons: local vets had the local knowledge and expertise, were seen as a “trusted source of advice” on disease management, and offered a holistic approach to whole herd health planning as they were familiar with the farm.’

Ways of enhancing the relationship between vets and farmers were discussed in a joint submission to the AHWBE's consultation by the BVA and the British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA). This made the important point that simply shifting responsibility for who pays for disease control will not achieve the long-term objective of eradicating TB in the absence of an effective, broad, holistic control programme, and that a holistic approach involving local practitioners could bring benefits extending beyond the specific goal of dealing with TB. In a concept paper included in their submission, the two organisations argued that there are a number of tasks currently carried out by the AHVLA which practitioners could carry out more effectively by virtue of the fact that they are regularly on site and have an intimate knowledge of their clients' farms.

The objectives of the approach proposed would be to enhance the role played by local practitioners in the bovine TB control programme. Repositioning that role, the two organisations suggested, would augment the current control programme, enable improved integration with wider aspects of disease surveillance and allow proper consideration of bovine TB within the wider context of farm health planning and endemic disease control. The role would be undertaken in partnership with the AHVLA, farmers and other bodies so that the TB programme could be properly integrated at national and local levels, with more control and decision making at local level.

The AHWBE might still be reflecting on the responses to its call for views, but the kind of approach advocated by the BVA and BCVA would appear to make sense, in that it builds on the relationship that already exists between vets and farmers and would ensure that local knowledge is usefully applied. It would also help to encourage wider application and a more proactive approach to herd health planning, bringing benefits in terms of controlling other diseases and helping to protect the food chain. The important point here is that animal health needs to be considered in the round; when it comes to biosecurity, for example, TB cannot be considered in isolation. At a time when Defra is also looking for new ways of working in other areas – most notably, perhaps, in terms of strengthening disease surveillance – it offers a holistic approach to health management which, in terms of an overall national strategy, will be so essential if policies are to be ‘joined up’.

■ The AHWBE's summary of responses to its call for views is available at

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