Can We Talk?
By Jean-Pierre Vaillancourt
The role of communication in regional disease control
By Jean-Pierre Vaillancourt
In April of this year, the world woke up to the likelihood of an H1N1
influenza pandemic. We saw a frenzy of media coverage as the disease,
including severe respiratory symptoms leading to death, was described
In April of this year, the world woke up to the likelihood of an H1N1 influenza pandemic. We saw a frenzy of media coverage as the disease, including severe respiratory symptoms leading to death, was described from Mexico. We observed the fairly rapid spread of the disease to the United States and Canada.
Soon after, other cases were being reported on other continents. The World Health Organization (WHO) quickly issued statements in support of raising the level of influenza pandemic alert. In a press conference, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General of WHO, was asked what was the most effective way to control the disease. Communication, he replied. He went on to explain that you need to communicate where the disease is if you want to implement effective control measures.
These are words of wisdom that must not go unnoticed. Indeed, in today’s poultry industry, it is not possible to biosecure a farm in total abstraction of its neighbours. It is equally futile to try to biosecure a region one farm at a time. In other words, for a given region, poultry people also need to develop a regional perspective to biosecurity and disease control. This is because all animal activities comprise disease transmission risks and these risks augment in significance as the regional density of such activities increases. In this environment, disease prevention as well as disease containment must be approached considering communication issues at its core.
This appeared to be understood by many poultry health professionals surveyed on biosecurity in 2001. A total of 72 North American poultry veterinarians, including 13 Canadians, responsible for the health of at least three billion birds annually responded to a series of questions that also covered the issue of communication as part of disease control. On a scale of one to four, one being negligible and four being very important, respondents ranked the regular reporting of the health status of flocks between companies or organizations (3.6) at par with knowing the health status of breeders for meat flocks (3.4).
| Dr. J.-P. Vaillancourt writes that creating conditions that will favour effective communications as part of disease control must and can be done by industry.|
Communicating with poultry personnel regarding biosecurity issues also ranked high with the recommendation of putting in place educational programmes (3.8) and having regular auditing of on-farm biosecurity measures (3.5).
When asked about what should be communicated in a region when an outbreak of a serious disease occurs (e.g., infectious laryngotracheitis (ILT), Mycoplasma gallisepticum), they stressed the following: communicating the health status of all the farms in the outbreak area to growers and poultry personnel (3.9); if the disease is vertically transmitted, having the diagnostic testing in place to assess the disease status of progeny before hatch (3.7); informing utilities companies of all diseased farms and providing them with appropriate instructions (3.7); testing all the flocks in the at risk region where cases have been found (3.6); and finally, using quarantine signs at the entrance of suspected and confirmed infected farms (3.6).
These communication measures ranked higher than more traditional biosecurity recommendations such as using footbaths at the entrance of each barn (2.9), washing and disinfecting equipment moved between barns on the same farm (2.7), and were at par with restricting access to visitors (3.7), and keeping barn doors locked (3.5).
These, of course, are not necessarily the opinions of poultry flock owners. We all know that, in practice, most of the above communication recommendations are not applied or at least not consistently implemented. For that to happen, it is often necessary to go through a catastrophic infectious disease event; the kind to bring about a paradigm shift in the mind of those associated with the issue.
A paradigm is “a shared set of beliefs or assumptions that defines the ways in which we think and act.” It establishes or defines boundaries and it tells one how to behave to be functional within them. Any information which does not fit the paradigm is usually, at best, ignored; at worst, it triggers a very negative reaction. California experienced this when people with backyard flocks and live-bird markets started moving birds around, i.e., increasing poultry traffic, during the effort to quarantine and reduce traffic to contain the Newcastle epidemic of 2003. For these people, the risk and impact of losing their birds or business was considered much greater than the risk and impact of spreading a very virulent virus throughout the community.
Currently, it is also very difficult for many commercial poultry growers to voluntarily declare their farm as suspected of a serious condition, such as a reportable disease. This is understandable. What will be the immediate consequences? Being ostracized? Loosing business? What will this say about the grower involved? Even if the disease is not confirmed, isn’t there a financial and social risk all the same? These are all legitimate questions, mainly if there is no change in paradigm; if there is no shift from viewing poultry production as only a mechanical process essentially dictated by economics, to one where health risks are factored in by all participants for all participants.
We have enough evidence, i.e., poultry disease epidemics, in the world right now to be in no position to plead ignorance if the next outbreak affects our own region. Yet, the best disease eradication plan will be almost worthless unless the location of infected (or potentially infected) premises is known quickly. It is noteworthy that the vast majority of avian influenza simulations conducted nationwide over the past few years started with a grower willing to communicate.
Can we safely assume that this will be the case next time the industry faces a real threat? Not necessarily, but there are good indicators that positive changes are occurring. All the work done in British Colombia over the past five years, including the establishment of a reporting system for important diseases in addition to reportable ones, is a remarkable achievement.
The poultry industry in Ontario, although still spared from reportable diseases, has put in place a regional disease control plan that also covers a few non reportable diseases. It is significant that they are active at finding ways to favour disease reporting by working on private compensation plans. In Quebec, the feather boards, in collaboration with related industries (feed mills, slaughter plants, hatcheries, etc.) have created a new legal entity dedicated to intervening if a reportable disease is suspected, as well as to providing poultry people with continuous education and support on biosecurity issues. The industry in the other provinces is also not standing on the sideline.
So, to the question “can we talk?”, the answer seems to be more and more “yes” followed by “but it depends.” And this is good. Much work still needs to be done to create the conditions that will favour effective communications as part of disease control. This must be done and can only be done by industry people. This is required to establish in our general consciousness a paradigm that fits the relatively new reality of catastrophic poultry disease events. From the perspective of one who debates this issue in other countries, I say that the poultry industry in Canada is positioning itself as a leader. Hopefully, the H1N1 human crisis will only further encourage the poultry industry to show how Dr. Fukuda’s answer about disease control can actually be done.