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Q&A with Nigel Gibbens

01 March 2017, at 12:00am

From bird flu to Brexit, CVO Nigel Gibbens talks to Ellen Hardy about the evolving role of OVs in the face of current agricultural challenges

Why was the Improve OV Conference in September an important event for you to be involved in?

The OV network is absolutely crucial to the work we do. The event was interesting in that it showed the variety of roles beyond animal health and welfare (the area that I’m most involved in) – from those focused on exports of small animals, through food, all the way to the major disease challenges like TB. Improve International’s work ensures that there is a common standard of training that can be verified. Consistency of work is vital, both to disease control and to our reputation. In a post-Brexit world, we will be a trading nation and the ability of our vets to certify correctly is absolutely crucial.

How do you see the role of OVs evolving over the next few years?

I think the traditional roles will stay, but we are moving toward using OVs in a wider range of roles. We’re moving quite slowly, but we’re opening the door for them to become more involved in, say, on farm advice on TB. Helping farmers with biosecurity on TB strategy is very much geared to reducing disease spread risk by helping farmers to understand relative risk from different farms as well as what they can do to protect themselves. OVs can be central to that.

Bird flu is on everyone’s minds – are these sort of events becoming more common?

Bird flu is the most likely exotic disease for us to have. The disease is present constantly in parts of the world; in Asia, bird flu cycles and it regularly travels into Europe (north and south) and, importantly, it is spread by wild birds, amongst other vectors. Another critical thing that OVs do, but a different complexion, is to ensure that the checks are in place to make sure we don’t import it in animals or products. The type of bird flu varies year on year. This year, it’s a particularly nasty version of a bird disease obviously not human, not affecting humans. So, that frequency is likely to continue. It’s possible to go a couple of years where it won’t occur, but it has to be predictable that it will.

How can you influence policy and strategy to adapt to longer-term changes, like changes in distribution of disease vectors due to climate change?

We need to maintain our awareness. There is constant international surveillance to know what diseases are out there and, if they are significant, we can change our import rules. Vector-borne diseases however, are unstoppable. If we can stop incursions by animal movements, we must do that. If it’s going to come blown on the wind by midges, it will come, but if we’re aware that it’s a threat and we can make a vaccine available, then farmers can protect themselves.

One Health and collaboration between veterinary, medical, and environmental stakeholders has been a hot topic recently. Is this an initiative that the government is keen on?

Very keen on. Our relationship with Public Health England (the government sector that delivers the population level disease control) is very strong. If there’s a disease that affects animals and humans, we all work together on it. With the ’flus, we collaborate from the outset to determine whether it’s a threat to humans and take appropriate action. We have a common interest in what the vectors are doing and where they are, so we have a joint approach to surveillance for the spread of midges and mosquitos. More broadly, there needs to be a recognition that animals are part of human wellbeing; they help them exercise, they help their stress levels, they can be support dogs. The One Health story is very much about getting people to understand that.

Is it sustainable to continue culling thousands of birds in response to bird flu events? Are there any alternatives?

There isn’t a vaccine that works for this strain of bird flu. Vaccines for bird flu are hard to apply anyway because they tend to be injectable and they have varying degrees of protection depending on the strain. This is the extreme end; if we’d used the available bird flu vaccine it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Commercially, the vaccine is very hard to deliver, so it’s not an attractive option. For backyard flocks it might be more attractive, but there isn’t one currently available – and that’s one of the challenges of the flus constantly changing.

What can we expect in terms of government action on antibiotics?

2016 was the year of anti-microbial resistance action, so has received a lot of global focus. In the animal field, it has reemphasised the need to be responsible in our use of antibiotics. There is good practice increasingly and we’re seeing that overall usage is down across the sectors. There’s more to do, and we need the sectors to do more, because the direction of travel is only one way. We need to look at all of our systems very carefully to see where use is regular and unnecessary. Use will only become unnecessary once you’ve changed your systems so you’re better supporting health. Many will feel that if they’re using antibiotics regularly, they’re doing it for good reason, and would react very badly if you took that away; that’s why we’re seeking to work with vets and the sectors they serve to take them on a journey that allows gradual reduction.

How will it go in the next five years?

The pressure will continue – there’s the possibility of further regulation. That is on track in the EU; we’re on the verge of leaving the EU, but we’re at the forefront of antimicrobial resistance, so anything we did is likely to mirror that anyway.

What will the main impacts of Brexit be on the veterinary profession and UK agriculture?

There is still a lot of uncertainty and it’s not my job to address that. The centre of government is looking at the terms of which we might leave the EU and there’s a negotiation to have. In our world, trade has always been very important to us. You can’t predict the exact shape of the change, but there is a certainty that we will be looking to grow our exports. We must keep our good reputation for animal health and welfare to underpin this. Exports is the main product, but underpinning it are all of the things we’ve been taking about – maintaining our disease control, being efficient at responding and creating good animal health. We have recognised excellence in our laboratories and we’ve got surveillance systems that support not only early detection but also help the sectors to recognise the challenges they face, especially new and difficult ones. We’ve got a field force that is effective and in parallel with the OV field force, we are ensuring that our teams are better trained and more professional.

What routes would you recommend for vets particularly interested in notifiable diseases?

In our profession, there are some people who are always more interested in the bigger picture – disease at population level. The work we do in government and the work of OVs is exactly tailored to that and sitting in there is the notifiable diseases. Vets with that interest often are already in large animal practice. There are some excellent vets doing really good population medicine at the herd level and with the increasing size of practices, you’re often getting towards regional level of understanding of disease. That’s one route of entry. Another is the specialisms that you can pursue which just take you into that route, like academia – we’ve got vets in academia pursuing epidemiological based research careers who are dealing with that category of work. Some vets segue into this and I’m keen that we keep them doing it; vets in those roles can be very strong and they bring an important role to the whole team in terms of understanding how disease behaves and putting that research into context.

Did your field experience and your international experience affect your approach to the job?

Hugely. I’d like to think that although I don’t do on-farm veterinary work anymore, I did enough to know what challenges are faced and what it is like to grapple with a difficult farm situation. I worked internationally in quite poor countries – in places where the diseases we fear are ever present, and therefore I’ve got a feel for the impact, so it’s real to me.

What would you like your legacy to be?

I think a recognition that good animal health is founded on dealing with animal health in the round. In other words, dealing with the whole of animal health issues facing our livestock sectors – and government playing a role in that, but in partnership. We do a lot of that already, but I’d like that to be the essence of the way we approach animal health.