Science & Environment

Animal lab cuts 'pose threat to human health'

Edward Peduzie and his father Paul
Image caption Edward Peduzie died from vCJD

Cuts to animal health surveillance mean Britain is at a much greater risk of outbreaks of devastating diseases such as "mad cow disease", experts say.

The Royal College of Pathologists (RCP) says human health could be at risk.

The RCP is calling for an urgent review of plans to cut the number of animal health surveillance laboratories in England and Wales from 14 to seven.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says the cuts are part of an "improved approach".

Pathologists in these laboratories identified, tracked and helped formulate a response to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which first emerged in cattle in 1986.

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) - the human form of BSE - has killed 174 people, many of them teenagers.

Swine fever

Most recently, the Animal Health and Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) spotted the crossover of tuberculosis (TB) from pet cats to humans.

The agency has also identified outbreaks of other diseases, such as swine fever, Schmallenberg virus and blue tongue.

The RCP warns the proposed cuts will slow down the ability to detect animal infections.

It warns it will lead to an irreversible loss of expertise, and make Britain more vulnerable to BSE-type diseases in the future.

'Cut costs'

RCP president Dr Archie Prentice said: "The risk is that if we can't detect an animal infection quickly, it can then spread throughout animal livestock, which is worth £11bn to this country.

"More importantly, the risk is that it can spread to humans before it can be identified in the animal stock.

"We are going to be using a system that is not as good as before.

"We are always going to see new organisms that we haven't seen before and we are always going to see old organisms that we thought had been brought under control, reappearing.

"So if you don't have this early detection system around, your chance of picking this up is much less."

He added: "I don't know anybody who is happy about this.

"We know from what some of the officials at Defra and AHVLA have told us that they wouldn't do this if they hadn't been under such pressure to cut costs."

Juan Lubroth, chief veterinary officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, told the BBC the downsizing was "not what the world or the UK needs".

He said: "This is the wrong direction. By saving millions of pounds, you put at risk billions of pounds.

"With a growing world population and a growing demand for food and agricultural products, the trend for the last 60 years has been more and more of a spillover of animal diseases affecting humans.

"We need these laboratories to be able to respond quickly and prevent pathogens spreading across borders."

Son died

Paul Peduzie, from Calne, Wiltshire, lost his son Edward to vCJD. Edward was 18 when he contracted the disease and 25 when he died in 2009.

He told the BBC the downsizing of the surveillance network would "inevitably mean that more children or adults will end up like my son".

Image caption Edward was 18 when he contracted vCJD

"It makes me feel very sad," he said. "When we get five or 10 years down the line and people are dying again, it's too late to rectify it.

"We have the ability to do it now. Don't throw it away, it's just not worth it.

"I suppose it may be to some of these people if it's not your family that suffers.

"But to me, I don't care whose family it is, from the bottom to the top. Testing is worth it."

Mr Peduzie said the disease was "horrendous to watch".

By the end, Edward was unable to talk or move, his lungs had to be constantly drained and he had to be fed intravenously.

"A child is the most precious thing to be taken away," Mr Peduzie said.

"Too much is talked about the cost of these things. When you actually look at the cost, it's very small.

"For the life of just one person, it's money well spent."

'Service dismantled'

The changes mean vets will have to have extra training in pathology, and that autopsies may have to be carried out on site on a farm or in a slaughterhouse.

In some cases, farmers themselves will have to find a way to securely transport larger livestock carcasses to a centre further away.

Nick Blaney is a vet who works in and around Stratford on Avon. The local surveillance centre, Luddington, is due to close on Tuesday.

"Pathology is now going to be restricted to carcasses you can pick up and put in the car or send in the post," he said.

"To see the service dismantled like this, I feel very bitter."

"We are losing access to a very important function.

"They have a level of equipment and expertise that is second to none in the world."

"Along with being very important to our clients, this has a national implication.

"We live in a time with increasing concerns about food security.

"Surely this is the very moment when you need to know what's going on in terms of emerging disease patterns in agriculture."

'Recognise threats'

However, according to the AHVLA, this is an improved approach to surveillance.

It will not just rely on government post-mortems but draw on the expertise of private vets, universities and the livestock industry.

An AHVLA official said: "Far from a loss of expertise, there is a greater emphasis on developing the specific skills of pathology and epidemiology within AHVLA which are so highly valued.

"By introducing more post-mortem providers farmers' access to pathology will be improved. In areas less accessible to a post-mortem centre a carcass collection and transport system funded by AHVLA will be introduced.

"The recent case of M. bovis in cats was first discovered by a private vet and is an example of how collaborative working is essential for effective surveillance.

"Surveillance for serious diseases such as BSE, foot and mouth and avian influenza is not affected by the changes and AHVLA will continue to investigate all reports of notifiable animal disease."