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Are we prepared for a major disease outbreak?

Les Eckford, BVA Council representative for Wales, updates on his recent experience of ‘Exercise Blackthorn’, designed to test the UK’s readiness for dealing with a major disease outbreak.

Are we prepared for a major disease outbreak?

For some large animal practitioners, and farmers, the Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic of 2001 only seems like the other day. With over 2000 infected premises and many, many, months of severe disruption to farming, rural communities and individual lives, this awful incident remains fresh in our minds.

However, we’ve come a long way since then and all the UK administrations have detailed plans published on the structures and procedures for responding to major animal disease outbreaks, and in fact we are required to hold notifiable disease exercises (2 in every 5 years) to test their procedures and resilience.

Exercise, exercise, exercise: this is a drill

I was lucky enough to take part recently in the latest such exercise, known as Exercise Blackthorn.

The operation was held over 2 days looking at a fictitious yet realistic outbreak of FMD, with the first infected premises in the border area between England and Wales. Set at day 7, and run in real-time, the intention was to mimic the activities around investigating and confirming disease, culling of infected groups, and tracing of contacts, as well as a specific focus on testing the new operational structure of APHA and the resilience of the animal movement reporting and recording systems.

The scenario

While the scenario started with disease suspicion in the border area, the storyline involved movements through a large market, so that by the start of the exercise there were 10 infected premises in the UK with all 4 administrations involved.

Over 400 people, including observers from other countries, were at some point contributing to the exercise thorough the National Disease Control centre in London or the co-ordinating centres in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. Operational action was played out at Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) relevant to where the infected premises would have been.

I spent the 2 days in the Cardiff Emergency Coordination Centre in the basement of Welsh Government Headquarters (designed for civil emergencies) to see policy officials, veterinary advisers, politicians, operational partners and stakeholders follow the action of the storyline with a series of briefings, situation updates, and coordination meetings with the other centres. I represented BVA at this centre, while John Fishwick (BVA President) and John Blackwell (BVA past president) were at the National Control Centre in London.

To test the procedures a series of amendments or challenges to the story are fed into the centres by a series of “injects” at different times. Throughout the day there are a series of meetings, expert groups, information dissemination, and communication releases - the timing of these collectively known as the battle rhythm.

Although I had been to a number of these major exercises when working in government, this time, representing BVA in Wales, I was able to see first-hand how other agencies and organisations are brought into the process of dealing with the disease, and how information is cascaded down to them, as well as listen to their views.

The role of vets

Veterinary resources for dealing with an outbreak come initially from APHA, however the supply of veterinarians outside government for official work is provided by veterinary delivery partners, with contracts in place for these organisations to supply experienced veterinarians during an outbreak. The available supply is a critical factor in being able to control and deal effectively with the situation, and we degrade this at our peril.

Restrictions on animal movements have a huge impact on farming, and when a standstill is in place there are major strains on rural life and animal welfare. The impact of this, and the important role of the vet in alleviating the situation, was one of the areas explored during the exercise with stakeholders and operational partners.

It was a fantastic opportunity to take part in the exercise, and hear first-hand the recognition of the central role of vets in an outbreak, even if not directly involved in fighting the disease. With Brexit looming, and veterinary capacity and capability of increasing concern, having an exercise of this size and complexity provided a valuable opportunity to reinforce the pivotal role of vets in animal health and welfare, and public health.

As the Wales representative on BVA Council I would love to hear from you on the issues that matter to you most. Get in touch via wales@bva.co.uk

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