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Need to put an end to sloppy biosecurity

by
01 November 2015, at 12:00am

PERISCOPE continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern

I WAS interested to read a report concerning the spread of a virulent form of BVD in Germany during late 2012 and 2013. The authors concluded that the probable cause of spread to the majority of the 20 secondary outbreaks was the farm veterinary surgeon.

A senior member of the BVA has been reported as describing the news with the now familiar phrase “a wakeup call to the profession” (if we have any more “wake-up calls” we’ll never get a good night’s sleep!), but went on to say that there was no evidence to suggest “sloppy” biosecurity within the UK profession. Hmm. Has he been going round with his eyes closed? Or simply been looking the other way?

On the subject of there being no evidence of sloppy biosecurity within the UK profession I would ask simply: what is the evidence that there is not sloppy biosecurity?

Presumably the route of spread of the German BVD outbreak would not have been ascertained had researchers at the Friedrich-LoefflerInstitute not looked into the epidemic in some detail. How often do vets in practice in the UK carry out a detailed epidemiological study into the appearance of any particular infectious disease onto a farm? If one doesn’t look for something it will rarely be found. And turning over stones might reveal something one would rather not find.

That might sound cynical and accusatory but I’m afraid that over the years I’ve seen plenty of evidence of “sloppy” biosecurity within the veterinary profession. You can often recognise a farm vet’s car by the mud-caked rear windscreen and wheel arches. And if you open up the boot there are usually all manner of faecally contaminated bottles, boxes and equipment on view.

The report into the German BVD outbreak concluded that vets often used the same protective clothing on several farms. In my experience this is the norm within the UK profession too.

It is also my experience that it is almost impossible to thoroughly cleanse and disinfect protective clothing before leaving a farm because one cannot see and reach every part of the clothing. That and the fact that there is not always a clean concrete standing on which to park your vehicle and where you can finally disinfect your boots before taking them off and putting your shoes back on.

I worked for a while for what used to be called the State Veterinary Service. It was rare for me to visit more than two farms in a day and I would always use fresh waterproofs on each farm. These would go into the washing machine at the end of every day so there was always a constant source of spotless overalls to wear.

But for a farm vet visiting perhaps five, six or more farms each day, this is a less practical solution. I suggest that most give a fairly cursory “hose down” at the end of each visit and splash on some disinfectant (at whatever concentration), if you’re lucky. Am I right or has there been a dramatic improvement over the last few years?

Faecal filth

What about contamination of your car keys? I would suggest that these are handled with faecally contaminated hands on most days by most farm vets. How often are they cleansed and disinfected?

What about the accelerator, brake and clutch pedals? The shoes you arrive on farm with are almost certainly contaminated from walking round to the boot to get out your wellies. Is much (or any) thought given to the risk of disease spread through this route? How often do most vets cleanse and disinfect their shoes? What about the faecal contamination beneath your fingernails or from that swipe of the cow’s tail across your hair?

As you can see, once you start to analyse what is needed for good biosecurity, the awareness of how difficult it is to achieve to a high standard begins to sink in. It requires planning, attention to detail, the correct equipment and environment, and above all, time. How many of us can honestly say we carry it out on farm to the very best of our ability?

I am not trying here to belittle the many farm vets who in the vast majority of cases provide a truly heroic service to the farms and farm animals the length and breadth of the country. That most farmers can pick up the phone 24 hours a day and expect a vet to arrive within the hour is in my view remarkable.

There is probably no other profession, trade or public service (with perhaps the exception of the fire service or ambulance service – and we have all heard the horror stories here) that can even begin to match this – and all at a sometimes ridiculously low cost to the farming client.

All I’m saying is that biosecurity needs to be given a far higher priority. By the very nature of the contact that most vets have with farm animals, they pose a high risk for the transmission of pathogens from one farm to the next. Reducing this risk to zero is unattainable (Ebola virus has spread in high security infectious disease units and FMD has escaped from high security research units), but reducing it to a minimum is an achievable goal.

Make no mistake: good biosecurity is very hard work. At the very minimum it means looking carefully at one’s working practices with a critical veterinary eye and identifying all those areas where action needs to be taken to decontaminate oneself, protective clothing, equipment and consumables.

A written protocol should then be drawn up that details exactly how each of these risks is to be addressed including such things as the concentration of disinfectant to be used and for how long. Then that protocol needs to be followed and in return reflected upon in the light of practical experience and results.

Biosecurity needs to become the first thing one thinks of when visiting a farm (remember – “First, do no harm”) and to be kept under constant review and critical reflection to prevent “sloppy” habits from developing.

And remember too, when the origin of the next outbreak of Salmonellosis or BVD, or heaven forbid FMD, is investigated on farm, in the very worst case scenario, “It could be you.”