Chief vet pinpoints key animal disease threats facing UK

From combatting diseases such as foot and mouth disease to helping the UK secure multi-million pound trade deals, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of government veterinary services.

In an interview with Farmers Weekly, Nigel Gibbens, the UK’s chief veterinary officer, talks about the affect of the spending review on Defra’s budget for farm veterinary services and identifies the animal disease threats facing farmers in the future.

Chief veterinary officer, Nigel Gibbens

Cheif vet, Nigel Gibbens

What are the most pressing exotic animal health disease threats facing UK farmers?

Globally, food and mouth disease is ever present. It is present in Turkey, which is right on the borders to the EU. Foot and mouth disease has not gone. But in terms of east Africa, Asia, it rages.

It’s a very big threat and why we spend such a lot of time on being prepared to deal with it and trying to stop it getting in.

There are two elements to this. Firstly, don’t let it across our borders. Secondly, don’t let it get into contact with animals. Therefore, on-farm biosecurity is probably the major step that actually will prevent us having that devastating disease again.

The swine fevers are present within Europe. We have got African swine fever in Russian and on the edges of Europe, Classical swine fever in the wild boar population. We must stop that getting in. It could be devastating for the pig population.

We also need to be aware of the vector-borne diseases. Bluetongue is in France at the moment. It is close to our borders and is a real threat, but you can vaccinate.

Our job is to make sure that we are aware how that disease is moving. If it becomes a real threat to the UK again, we would let farmers know and inform the pharmaceutical industry there may be a need for vaccine production.

But Schmallenberg virus turned out to be not as bad as we thought it could be and bluetongue is not causing as many problems in France as it did last time.

What effect will the recent Defra budget cuts have on frontline veterinary services for farming?

Defra has committed to maintaining funding in our area, so we will be maintaining our frontline services. We need to become more efficient, so we may change the way they work. We will be seeing changes on the way veterinary services for TB are delivered.

We will be working with the private veterinary sector and changing the way we work with them. We need to become better with the resources we have.

We won’t stand still and there will be change. The outcome of the spending review has not changed our position. We now need to move on and make the best of what we have got.

Do the budget cuts place more onus on farmers in terms of disease surveillance of livestock?

In all truth, the situation has not really changed. It only starts when a farmer or vet tell us they have got a problem.

I don’t think the onus has changed. The outcome of the autumn spending review (SR) was good for Defra. It wasn’t no cut – Defra has taken a 15% cut. But within that, it will secure funding which will allow us to maintain our laboratory services.

I was pleased that secretary of state Liz Truss reconfirmed in her statement after the SR, reconfirmed her commitment to maintaining our capability on animal and farm health.

We will always have to change. We were already working in partnership with the work we do and that will simply have to continue.

The challenge of bovine TB will not be tackled unless we do it in partnership. However, surveillance has always been shared. If farmers are not alert, then we don’t even get off the starting blocks.

That was the story of 2001. Foot and mouth disease was present in the country before we even knew it was here, which is why it was so bad.

How much is the farming industry in denial about the overuse of antibiotics?

I don’t think the farming industry is in denial. We have a long history of working on the use of antibiotics. Ruma (The Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture) has been promoting good practice in antibiotic use for many years.

In 2011, we signed off our joint strategy between Defra and the Department of Health on tackling the use of antibiotics in both animals and humans.

There is always more to do. What I would like to see is farmers and their vets being able to use antibiotics to deal with disease where it is necessary.

You have to have that for animal health and for animal welfare. But we look at the various sectors to minimise that use.

Good husbandry, good farming practices, means less disease challenges and less use of antibiotics. Therefore, that reduces the risk that that might be a driver for resistance and actually could improve productivity and better profits for farmers.

Do you believe culling badgers is an effective tool for reducing bovine TB?

Very much so, provided that badgers are culled effectively over a large area.

The government has been looking at the practicalities of doing that. Badgers are a key part of TB epidemiology and they have to be dealt with.

Why are we still 10 years away from a TB cattle vaccine?

Cattle vaccination is a really difficult challenge. In essence, TB vaccines are difficult.

Despite huge efforts by both Defra and also much more money spent by the health side, we haven’t come up with anything better than the BCG (Bacillus Calmette–Guérin) vaccine and it doesn’t produce complete protection.

It isn’t a silver bullet. The first question is can we get it to a stage where it will really work in cattle and we haven’t.

To apply it in cattle, you need to be able to tell the difference between vaccinated and infected animals and that requires a special diagnostic test which we don’t have yet, but we have been working on.

Until you have that, international rules stop you. There are big barriers. There is work we have to do and it isn’t close.

How confident are you that the UK will be successful in its application to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) for “bird-flu” free status?

The OIE don’t have to sign off on this. We think we simply meet the requirements. So if you have an outbreak, have culled the infected birds and completely disinfected and wait three months having done all the surveillance necessary, we declare freedom.

The issue is regaining our third country markets. We have to persuade them all that it is OK. We have done some of that already.

We were very pleased that South Africa, a major trading partner, allowed us to resume exports. Achieving a bird-flu free status is an important milestone, but it isn’t the whole story.

How likely is a major disease outbreak, such as foot and mouth disease, in the UK in the near future?

It is a low likelihood, but you can’t rule it out. You can go beyond that to try to guess how frequently it might happen in an X-year time span, but I see that as false precision.

The likelihood is low because of all the controls we have in place and because of the controls in Europe. But it is not impossible because people do do the wrong thing.

They smuggle goods. They put us at risk. We need to keep the risk low and deal with it effectively if it happens.

Do you think the veterinary industry, like agriculture, faces problems attracting the next generation of veterinary leaders? If so, why?

This is hugely important. I am pleased to say the veterinary profession has really gripped this. There is a report that the BVA and the RCVS have just issued called Veterinary Futures.

The issue isn’t attracting veterinarians into our profession, for me I am really keen that vets see what I do and what my colleagues in APHA do as a really worthwhile career.

We do contribute to wider society and public good.

The real thing is, what direction as a whole is the whole veterinary profession going towards? Are we ambitious enough in the breadth of work we do in the profession? Are there enough vets in research?

There are plenty of vets coming through to fill that private practice need. However, are vets doing enough with the food industry as opposed to the narrow focus on private practice?


Timeline – 150 years of UK state veterinary medicine

1865 – The first UK veterinary service was set up when the government established the Veterinary Department of the Privy Council to tackle a devastating outbreak of cattle plague (rinderpest), a highly infectious disease that caused the loss of around 400,000 animals

1900 – Restrictions on the importation of livestock, and the compulsory slaughter of affected animals and their contacts put in place after the nation suffers a number of serious outbreaks of infectious livestock diseases, including sheep pox, cattle plague, swine fever, foot and mouth disease and bovine pleuro-pneumonia.

1905 – The Veterinary Laboratory Service (VLS), established in the early 1900s, expands its remit and starts to research animal diseases, following the appointment of chief veterinary officer Sir Stewart Stockman

1917 – Research on animal diseases transferred to the newly opened Central Veterinary Laboratory (CVL), at a site near Weybridge

1925Tuberculosis Order passed, which for the first time linked the spread of disease in humans with the consumption of untreated milk and led to bovine TB testing in cattle

1930s – Demand for veterinary services increases as government seeks to eliminate bovine TB and improve the health of the nation’s farm animals to safeguard agriculture and food production

1934The Milk Act introduces the notion of a “tested herd” (certified as being disease free) whereby milk guaranteed as disease-free attracts a premium

1935The Attested Herds Scheme enables farmers to apply for official bovine TB testing and, in the absence of reactors, to be entered into the Register of Attested Herds

1938The State Veterinary Service (SVS) is established, as part of the Animal Health Division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF)

1960s – The SVS was heavily involved in eradicating bovine TB and bruscellosis. However, pockets of TB persisted in herds in the South West.

1971 – The first case of Mycobacterium bovis, the main cause of TB in animals, is identified in badgers as researchers conclude that badgers are a significant reservoir of the disease

1986 – The first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is identified and a link is established between the disease and feed containing a scrapie-like agent in ruminant-derived meat and bone meal

2001 – The UK is at the centre of a major outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The disease costs the UK an estimated £8bn with more than 10 million cattle and sheep slaughtered under a nationwide cull.

2009 – Defra creates the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratory Agency (AHVLA), bringing together a wide range of field services, wildlife and veterinary expertise and scientific capabilities

2014The Animal Plant and Health Agency (APHA) was formed by merging AHVLA with Defra inspectorates covering plant, seed and bee health, creating a single organisation responsible for safeguarding animal and plant health