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Public health for the public good: Reflections on the 2023 VPHA/AGV Conference

Susan Paterson - RCVS President 2023-24

In this article RCVS President Dr Sue Paterson FRCVS, writes about her attendance at the 2023 VPHA and AGV Conference and reflects on some of the key discussions that took place there. 

Sue Paterson giving speech One of the benefits of having a diverse RCVS Officer team is that we can harness the various skill sets of everyone to support as many different parts of the profession as possible. This is particularly true in September and October when there is the potential to attend a large number of different veterinary conferences. Whilst I have enjoyed the generous hospitality and extensive CPD programme of the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) in the past, this year Linda Belton, the RCVS Junior Vice President and equine practitioner, attended the equine event whilst I went to the Veterinary Public Health Association (VPHA) and Association of Government Veterinarians (AGV) Conference in Leeds.  

A packed and varied programme under the umbrella title of 'What can we control?' showcased the diversity of roles undertaken by veterinary professionals working in and for the Government Veterinary Services (GVS) delivering animal health and welfare and veterinary public health outcomes for society. I don’t suppose I had really realised until the conference the remit of the members of AGV and VPHA and how active they are in the development of national legislation; the delivery of animal and public health official controls; and the management of zoonotic disease as well as food production.

Friday afternoon started with roundtable themed discussions led by students. At my first VPHA/AGV event I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I signed up for these discussions, but I have to confess to being impressed with the engagement and knowledge of our student hosts, who argued robustly and challenged intelligently, with enthusiastic discussions continuing over dinner.

The second day was introduced and ably facilitated again by the student ambassadors. The first session on Saturday considered controls on meat production and I was introduced to the risk-based meat inspection and integrated meat safety assurance (RIBMINS) network. The aim of RIBMINS is to combine and strengthen Europe-wide research efforts to create modern effective meat safety control systems.

Although environmental sustainability is important to me, I strongly believe that does not preclude me from consuming small amounts of high welfare, high quality, locally sourced meat; in fact we eat meat four days a week. Whilst the part that our production animal vets play in helping to guide and drive sustainable farming practices at the start of the food production chain is undeniable, it is equally important to maximise that sustainable practice by ensuring that carcass wastage is minimised at the end of the food production chain, without of course compromising quality.

The ultimate aim of RIBMINS will be to create an evidenced-based system to risk categorise farms and abattoirs to allow appropriate and proportionate control to be put in place during meat processing to assure meat safety and to enhance the sustainability of the product.

As a backyard poultry keeper, the session on avian flu from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) was particularly interesting. Considerable progress has been made on the epidemiology of the disease. Work undertaken to assess airborne spread of virus during culling events has shown no live virus local to the unit, suggesting that viral spread is almost entirely through faeces creating a 'viral soup'.

Each infected bird dropping carries 5,000 to 10,000 infective doses with a persistence of four-to-12 weeks in the environment. Sadly, it means that it is the wild bird population that are the biggest risk to my own hens rather than any local commercial poultry units. Strong correlations have been identified between outbreaks on units and a recent management event such as vaccination, suggesting the inciting factor may be a failure of biosecurity measures. This correlation has led to the creation of an excellent online biosecurity photobook developed in partnership with the poultry industry which highlights good practice.

An emotive session was delivered by VPHA President Mike Jessop on puppy farming. Whilst I suspect everyone is cognisant of the shocking squalid conditions encountered in unregulated puppy farms, I certainly wasn’t aware that conditions in licensed premises, where enforcement is often the responsibility of under-resourced local authorities, can on occasion only be slightly better. Mike gave examples of premises where young puppies are fed and watered but deprived of the essential environmental enrichment and human interaction that we know is so critical for normal development. Is it any wonder that we are seeing increasing numbers of young dogs presenting to primary care vets with complex behavioural problems.    

Other sessions included one on border control post-Brexit as well as a presentation from the BSAS (British Society of Animal Science) on the potential for collaboration between animal scientists and veterinary scientists. For me, the standout piece from the second of the two presentations fwas about the technology used to identify whether a pork product is or is not consistent with British origin. Stable Isotope Ratio Analysis (SIRA) can be used as both a deterrent and an early warning system to protect the “British” brand and the price premium of British pork.

Finally, I have to congratulate the organisers for the exceptional level of student engagement. I don’t think I have ever been to a conference where students have been so involved in the delivery of the event. Not only did students chair sessions, but several shared some of their research projects. I am sure that as an undergraduate I would not have had the confidence to stand up in front of what must have been for them, a hugely intimidating audience (which included three out of four Chief Veterinary Officers and the Junior Vice President of the BVA, as well as me), to deliver some original work. I have nothing but praise for the calibre of their accomplished presentations that were well beyond their years. 

Published on 22 September 2023

Tags: Events/meetings Leadership