An Ontario poultry farmer calls in his vet. He has lost 15 to 20 per cent of his birds over the last couple of days. The vet arrives, and after examining the flock suspects a contagious reportable disease. By law, the vet contacts the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to alert them to the problem. A CFIA vet arrives at the farm and comes to the same conclusion as the vet. Tests are sent away to confirm the presence of a disease. But, based on suspicion, CFIA places the farm under quarantine. So, there has been early detection and the vets can now take the necessary steps to prevent the possible spread of disease. They can talk with area farmers and explain what precautions they need to take – or can they? Surprisingly, the answer is no.
This scenario was outlined at the last meeting on disease preparedness held at the Poultry Industry Council in mid-July in Guelph. It surprised most there when CFIA vets and the private poultry vets explained that their problem could only just be starting. It is at this stage – the farm is under quarantine and tests have been sent away – that vets lose control of the situation.
Attendees learned that until the disease is confirmed vets can’t talk with anyone (including other vets) off-farm about the disease without the permission of the farmer or they risk being sued. Because of confidentiality, the farmer can bring early detection to a screeching halt and keep it that way for approximately 14 days which is the length of time needed to obtain a confirmatory positive of the disease from the federal laboratory. Vets suspect that most farmers will cooperate and freely agree to release information to surrounding farmers but one uncooperative farmer can give an infectious disease a big advantage.
Another surprise was that I was hearing words such as fear, guilt and blame being used during the meeting in conjunction with disease reporting. It’s this line of thinking that has to change if we are to achieve success in infectious disease control. Infectious disease reporting should be tackled the same way as tackling an apartment building fire. One unit in the high-rise building fills with smoke. The owner suspects a fire. He doesn’t wait to see flames for confirmation of a fire but instead immediately calls the fire department. He alerts the other residents in the building so they can take the appropriate actions to secure their safety. If it’s a false alarm, everyone goes about their business, but if it’s the real thing, the fire is limited to one or two units due to the quick response of the owner in the first unit. There is no finger-pointing or blame but congratulations on saving the rest of the building. Replace the word “unit” with “farm” and “building” with “industry” and utilize the same line of thinking for foreign animal diseases. Our attitudes have to change so that reporting a disease is accepted and encouraged. It’s just substituting one emergency with another.
This has happened in North Carolina. Since their experience with avian influenza in 2002, hundreds of “suspect” cases have been reported with farms placed under quarantine. Starting with the first day of quarantine, information is distributed to the industry and biosecurity and traffic control measures are beefed up. The state vet does all this. The key is that it is done prior to disease confirmation. If tests come back negative, it’s a bonus and farmers go about their business – no stigma, no repercussions. Farmers are satisfied that they did everything to stop the disease. Their attitudes changed after suffering the financial losses, which resulted from missing early detection.
So what’s the solution to the confidentiality/privacy problem the vets are dealing with? The same question was asked of members at the meeting in Guelph and there weren’t any simple solutions forthcoming. They did conclude that our industry should be the ones to drive the solutions. This law needs to be changed or amended and the poultry industry needs to give government direction to do so. Yes, we’ve heard it before – we need a Health of Animals Act. Industry needs to give our vets the power to deal with potentially dangerous diseases quickly. Should a disease hit – we’ve seen with Walkerton, SARS and BSE – the public doesn’t want excuses. They want action from the appropriate people and they want it done in a timely manner. Without it, they lose confidence and some then get involved. The direction they push the government can be rife with emotion and may not be the direction the poultry industry wants to go.
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