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Structures and surveillance

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IT can be hard to convince people of the continuing importance of scanning surveillance to detect new and emerging diseases, just as, until a few weeks ago, it might have been hard to persuade them that there might be some merit in testing ‘beef’ products for the presence of horsemeat. Nevertheless, as illustrated by the emergence of Schmallenberg virus, scanning surveillance is vital. The AHVLA has been reviewing arrangements for scanning surveillance in England and Wales for some time now and, in December, issued a consultation document seeking views on proposals for how it might proceed (VR, December 22/29, 2012, vol 171, pp 634-635; January 2, 2013, vol 172, p 2). The BVA, working with its divisions (see BVA News, p 247 of this issue), has responded to the AHVLA's request for comments, and makes some pertinent points in the process.

The AHVLA's project aims to create ‘a new, more effective and financially sustainable surveillance system, including improving access through better partnership working and by developing deeper skills and knowledge’. This in itself is admirable. However, with the Government's contribution to the surveillance budget set to be reduced from £8 million in 2010/11 to £4.9 million in 2014/15, there can be little doubt that the exercise is being financially driven, as illustrated, perhaps, by a remark in its consultation document that ‘improved surveillance can be achieved at a lower, and affordable, cost to the taxpayer, primarily through a reduction in the AHVLA's infrastructure and overheads’. It is also illustrated by three example scenarios given in the consultation document, discussing the provision of postmortem facilities at AHVLA centres. At present, postmortem facilities are available at 15 sites; in the examples discussed, this number would be reduced to between five and seven. In two of the examples, two centres with the highest-throughput would close. As the BVA points out, the scenarios seem to be based on financial considerations rather than maintaining viable scanning surveillance. If the aim is to strengthen surveillance, optimising coverage should be the starting point.

The Association agrees with the AHVLA that systematic use of a wider range of data sources has the potential to improve the detection of new or re-emerging disease threats. However, it makes the important point that this will only be the case if the data are reliable and robust and if response turnaround times are quick and efficient. This, it points out, will depend on good local relationships between private practitioners and AHVLA staff; good quality data; sufficient staff being available to collect, validate and analyse data; and the maintenance and development of specialist expertise within the service to enhance specialist species groups.

It describes local relationships between private practitioners and AHVLA staff as ‘a huge asset’ of the current system and suggests that the proposed arrangements would put this under threat. It also expresses concern about a continuing decline in the number of AHVLA vets with specific roles in surveillance, noting that there are currently only about 45 veterinary investigation officers and that the number could fall further.

On proposals for a collection service to transport carcases for postmortem examination at distant centres, the BVA notes that an effective service depends on postmortem examinations being performed within a set time after death. It is concerned that the proposed carcase collection service would not serve farmers adequately, and that this could result in a fall in submissions to AHVLA laboratories. This, in turn, could affect surveillance capability. It agrees with the AHVLA that involving local practitioners could play an important part in improving scanning surveillance, but notes that they would have to be properly trained to conduct high-quality postmortem examinations and submit appropriate samples. They would also need to be part of a network of specialists who were updated by AHVLA staff on a regular basis.

It clearly makes sense to make better use of practitioners in disease surveillance, just as it makes sense to make good use of all available sources of data. However, any such system needs to be adequately structured and resourced. The BVA accepts that there is a need to cut costs and make the current system more efficient. However, it is concerned that the savings that might result from the changes being proposed by the AHVLA will be limited and could be made more effectively elsewhere. It is also concerned that the changes could result in a less effective service as key elements, such as local expertise and relationships with practitioners, are lost. There has already been consolidation in the AHVLA, resulting in fewer laboratories, fewer veterinary investigation officers and higher prices for diagnostic services. This has resulted in some practitioners sending samples elsewhere. This trend will continue if centres are closed and surveillance will suffer as a result.

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