Do vets understand biosecurity?

With the growing challenges we’re facing, are our biosecurity standards as vets up to scratch?

13 January 2020, at 9:00am

This is the first of two articles challenging veterinary professional standards and our understanding of biosecurity. In the first article I explore the definition of biosecurity and why it is now of increasing concern. The second article will set out a series of ethical and professional challenges for the profession.

Over the last 40 years the development in disease therapies has been exponential. New antibiotics have allowed more and more people to survive infection and surgery. Anthelmintics have reduced the impact of parasites across the globe.

Today humanity faces major challenges from climate change, drug resistance, disease spread and the feeding of growing populations. Vets have a significant role to play in tackling three challenges – antibiotic resistance, anthelmintic resistance and disease control. Is our approach to dealing with these issues as a profession fit for today’s purposes? Are we recognising and acting on weaknesses in our approach?

The very basics of a vet’s daily routine, behaviours, practices and awareness of the world we work in poses serious threats to preventing and managing resistance to antibiotics and anthelmintics and controlling disease. There is very challenging evidence that, in relation to “biosecurity”, veterinary training, standards, behaviours, morals and ethics need to be significantly re-evaluated.

It is my view that the veterinary profession’s attitude to, and understanding of, whatever “biosecurity” means has to change and quickly. “Biosecurity” practices and advice to animal owners and keepers needs to become fit for purpose for today’s world.

What is my authority to challenge veterinary standards?

I have had a lifelong interaction with the need for high levels of biosecurity. From childhood when my grandparents were one of the first dairy farms in GB to become brucellosis accredited, to a veterinary career in practice and the State Veterinary Service dealing with outbreaks of Salmonella, TB, classical swine fever and foot and mouth disease (FMD), I have lived my life being highly aware of how disease and drug resistance spreads.

I have a herd of pedigree Limousin cattle free from Johne's disease for over 17 years. The herd is accredited for BVD and leptospirosis.

Why raise questions about biosecurity standards now?

I had a visit from a young vet to do my annual cattle health scheme test some years ago. I stopped him before he took blood from the second cow as he had not changed his needle. His response shocked me: “Oh, you want biosecurity do you?”

Another young vet came one day to assist with a calving. She did not park in our designated area for vets, away from animals, and put on dirty leggings and boots. I stopped her and demanded that everything be cleaned off and disinfected. A row ensued about the priority: the calving or cleanliness. It turned out she had Virkon with her as a disinfectant. Another discussion ensued. She was not aware Virkon would not kill acid-fast bacteria. I provided some FAM30 and we got the calving done successfully.

When I started doing Tuberculin Testing (TT) assessments, I became concerned about the standards of biosecurity I was seeing, not just with those vets I was assessing but with the general cleanliness and hygiene of some of the practices I was visiting.

I raised questions about what we as Improve International assessors could do about this; in particular, the state of the inside of vet’s vehicles. Some of them could be considered as disease risks in their own right.

The scoring for biosecurity standards recorded at 200 TT assessments was reviewed. TT assessment scoring is 1 = no advice or guidance needed; 2 = some advice and guidance needed; 3 = fail. 80 percent of vets assessed didn’t score a 1 for biosecurity.

This agrees with a survey done at Newcastle during FMD 2001 into the cleanliness of PPE returning from premises being visited by field staff. 82 percent were classed as unsatisfactory and had the potential to spread FMD. Is this an acceptable level of performance in the face of the challenges we face?

One of my assessor colleagues regaled us at a recent meeting with an incident on their own farm. A vet arrived to do a TB test and the vet’s PPE and testing equipment was far from clean. My colleague did not feel able to say anything to the vet. Why should my colleague feel unable to challenge the standards of veterinary colleagues?

At an assessment of two vets I asked them if they would challenge anything that did not comply with standards and regulations. Both said they did. I drew their attention to an opened bottle of antibiotic and two syringes on a wall beside the crush in full sunlight. I asked if that was OK. On further questioning they hadn’t noticed the bottle and were reluctant to challenge the farmer as he was a “big” client.

What is the priority here and why the barrier?

These points are a matter of grave concern for the profession which needs to address the issues behind these behaviours and conceptions.

A new concern is the increasing likelihood of African swine fever arriving in the UK. It will demand very high standards of biosecurity to control an outbreak. Are vets ready? Are vets capable? Are your clients ready? Have you made plans for dealing with it?

Does language matter with biosecurity?

The original definition of biosecurity started out as "a set of preventive measures designed to reduce the risk of transmission of infectious diseases in crops and livestock, quarantined pests, invasive alien species and living modified organisms" (Koblentz, 2010).

This definition has developed with changing priorities in disease control.

Australia takes a very robust approach defining biosecurity as “protecting the economy, environment and people’s health from pests and diseases. It includes trying to prevent new pests and diseases from arriving, and helping to control outbreaks when they do occur. While robust response arrangements are in place to combat outbreaks, preventing pest and disease incursions in the first place, remains a national priority.”

Phytophthora ramorum is devastating Scottish larch forests. It can only be controlled by felling trees. Scottish Forestry has provided guidance for the public using the forests:

“As the busy summer holidays period approaches, members of the public are being urged to take some simple precautions which could help, such as cleaning their boots before leaving.

“Keep coming, because we want people to keep coming and to enjoy the forest.” What sort of message is this? Keep coming, spread disease and enjoy it.

Does your advice to clients and staff use words like urge, consider, simple? Do you use words more in line with the Australian approach? Language matters.

How is vets’ biosecurity regarded by others?

Whilst preparing a talk on biosecurity I was visited by a salesman from an agricultural machinery company. He enquired what I was doing that day and I described the talk I was preparing about vets and biosecurity. His response was quick: “Good luck with that one.” How embarrassing that this is the view of our profession from someone else in farming. His main business is potato machinery. Biosecurity is a top priority in seed production meaning his vehicles must be spotless.

How easy is it to spread disease?

Disease is spread between premises by animals, vehicles, personnel or other things including wind, water and fomites.

Consider some basic disease facts.

  • 1g of infected faeces can infect a calf with Johne's disease
  • Six organisms is the infective dose of bovine TB
  • One fomite can carry enough BVD to infect many animals

Clearly it does not take much to spread disease.

Are the profession’s standards, behaviours and practices good enough?

A mare had a foal conceived by artificial insemination. They stayed on a holding with no horses for several miles around. A deal was done to export the foal to the EU. Pre-export nasopharyngeal swabs revealed both the mare and foal were positive for equine influenza. The owner disputed the results knowing there had been no contact with other equines for years. The laboratory resampled the mare and foal and both were found to be negative. On discussing this with the vet who took the first samples it transpired that two visits before sampling he had vaccinated four horses for equine flu. Tests confirmed the virus in the swabs was from the vaccine. Why were simple measures such as washing hands between animals not being routinely used?

In the light of this example and the incredibly small amount of infective material required to infect an animal, are the biosecurity, cleanliness and hygiene standards demonstrated by veterinary surgeons today sufficient to ensure vets are not spreading disease?

In the next issue, I shall present evidence that the veterinary profession urgently needs to review the standards it expects of colleagues, what training is given at university and what CPD is needed and understand what the livestock industry expects of the profession to ensure vets meet and maintain these standards, challenging colleagues when they fall short.

Author Year Title
Koblentz, Gregory D. 2010 Biosecurity reconsidered: calibrating biological threats and responses. International Security, 34, 96–132.

Alasdair Macnab, BVMS, MRCVS, Cert BIP OVS, owns a consultancy, AJM Agri Ltd, which does advisory work for farmers and crofters and advises businesses on biosecurity. He is the local branch chair for the National Farmers Union for Scotland and sits in the NFUS Legal and Technical Committee.

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