June 01, 2001


 Working together to fight emerging diseases

New director general of Office International des Epizooties stresses cooperation between nations, balance of public and private efforts as crucial to eradication of animal pathogens

Posted May 15, 2001 

As the new director general of the Office International des Epizooties, Dr. Bernard Vallat has his work cut out for him.

Dr. Bernard Vallat
Dr. Bernard Vallat

In addition to dealing with new outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, he's determined to prove to world leaders what he already knows: that veterinarians are vital to protecting the health of their animals and their people.

"The most difficult part of my job is first to convince governments that it's important to maintain a strong veterinary profession in their countries," he said. "It's important not to eliminate veterinary services, and to offer good conditions for [private] veterinarians to maintain an efficient net on the field. This is very difficult because a lot of governments are not aware of the role of the veterinary profession in the world."

Many governments also don't realize that government and private veterinarians are each indispensable in preventing and containing animal disease, Dr. Vallat said. Private veterinarians serve an essential function as the first guards against disease by identifying it in the field, but government veterinary services are also necessary to make and enforce policy.

"A lot of countries have decreased the number of official veterinarians, so the authority of the government doesn't exist and it's dangerous, because the introduction of disease is facilitated," he said. "A lot of countries have no privatization of veterinarians—all are official—and it's very bad also, because the private sector is more efficient."

Spreading this news might be hard work, but Dr. Vallat, who began his five-year term in January as the animal health organization's elected director general, said he is looking forward to the challenge of his new position.

"For me, the veterinary profession is one of the best professions in the world, and I am happy to support all the veterinarians in the world and the veterinary profession," he said. "Also, I am pleased to be in a position to play a role in fighting against disease because I fully understand the position of farmers, and if I can help them too, that is very important to me."

The Paris-based Office International des Epizooties, known by the initials OIE, is charged by its 157 member countries and the World Trade Organization with reporting on animal disease on a global scale and harmonizing regulations for trade in animals and animal products. An International Committee with a delegate from each member country-usually the top government veterinary officer—meets yearly to set policy for the group.

Dr. Vallat, a 1971 graduate of the French National Veterinary School who entered the public veterinary service in 1973 as a French veterinary inspector, oversees the daily operations of the OIE and carries out the objectives set by the International Committee.

The OIE's primary function is to maintain an international system of animal health information. Information on diseases is compiled from reports made by each member country's veterinary leaders, and depending on its urgency, could be e-mailed to contacts in potentially affected countries. Data are also available through several print publications and on the OIE Web site, www.oie.int.

"All countries that have admission to the OIE have a strong commitment to declare all animal diseases that occur on their territory, and the OIE has the obligation to inform all other member countries when one country notifies us of a disease," Dr. Vallat said.

The OIE also oversees 120 world reference laboratories and monitors the work of other laboratories to collect and synthesize data on animal health.

OIE publications carry wide influence—one, the International Animal Health Code, establishes trade guidelines followed by member countries of the OIE and the World Trade Organization. The code sets criteria by which countries can claim they are free of a particular disease, or, if they are at risk of transmitting dangerous pathogens, what measures they have to take before exporting animals. Another publication, the Manual of Standards for Diagnostic Tests and Vaccines, helps determine how all 157 members detect and prevent animal diseases through laboratory analysis methods. The OIE also publishes a Code and a Manual for aquatic animals.

One of the OIE's newer missions, Dr. Vallat said, is to provide expertise to poor and developing nations as they fight epizootics. However, the organization is supported on member country dues and cannot offer financial help to impoverished countries—that responsibility falls to the world's better—off nations, Dr. Vallat said. Wealthy countries shouldn't neglect this duty because as world trade and international travel continue to increase, a disease affecting one country can spread rapidly.

"If a poor country has any disease, it is in the interests of the international community to help that country eradicate the disease," he said. "Every rich country of the world has a role in helping a poor country fight animal disease, because it is a potential risk for the entire world."

This sort of cooperation is what Dr. Vallat says will eventually slow down the newest outbreaks—those of BSE and FMD in Europe. In fact, if governments would work together, Dr. Vallat said, FMD could be completely eradicated within 20 or 30 years.

OIE organizers and scientists are doing their best to speed the process of eradicating FMD and BSE, but have many additional obstacles to overcome. BSE has been especially difficult to deal with because so much about the disease is unknown. And although FMD is better understood scientifically, increased public sensitivity has made it difficult to slaughter the number of animals necessary to control the outbreak.

"Now the UK and the Netherlands have problems with zoo animals and animal parks," he said. "It's impossible to kill members of a species like the elephant because FMD is on a farm that is near a zoo. For that, we have to think about redesigning the [OIE] rules."

The International Committee is constantly reviewing the current publications to make sure they reflect the newest and most accurate information available, Dr. Vallat said. Top scientists from around the world gather at OIE-organized meetings to determine whether changes in the international rules should be made. Researchers and practitioners met about FMD in April, and will discuss BSE again in June.

Under Dr. Vallat's leadership, the OIE is trying to expand its focus beyond animal disease. Its committees will also begin tackling animal welfare and foodborne illnesses in the coming year.

At the same time the OIE is beginning its new missions, the AVMA is working to become more involved in OIE activities. In 1999, then president-elect Dr. Leonard F. Seda traveled to the annual meeting of the International Committee as a guest of the US delegate, then associate administrator for the USDA-APHIS, Dr. Joan M. Arnoldi.

This was the first time the USDA had asked the AVMA to participate in the meeting. Representatives from the US Animal Health Association and the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians have also traveled with and advised the US delegate, and have continued their involvement as well.

In 2000, Dr. James E. Nave, also as AVMA president-elect at the time, made the trip. Dr. Lyle P. Vogel, director of the AVMA Scientific Activities Division, accepted an invitation to attend the June 2001 meeting by US delegate and USDA-APHIS deputy administrator Dr. Alfonso Torres.

At the November 2000 Executive Board meeting, the AVMA had created an OIE working group to coordinate the Association's input to the US delegate. In April 2001, the board approved a recommendation—with Dr. Torres' blessing—transferring the duties of the OIE working group to the Council on Public Health and Regulatory Veterinary Medicine. The council will also nominate one of its members to serve a three-year term as an official liaison to the US delegation, and that person will make the trip to Paris each year beginning in 2002.

According to Dr. Vogel, this will increase the AVMA's input to the US delegate because Dr. Torres serves as a consultant to this council and often attends their meetings. A three-year term will also allow the liaison to participate in decisions that may take several years to finalize.

"When Dr. Torres invited Dr. Vogel this year, and then advanced the fact that the council should nominate someone for a three-year term, that was a long-term commitment by the USDA to include us in the OIE process," Dr. Seda said. "I think this is a credit both to them for including us, and it's also a credit to our interests by going and participating to the level we have. Now we're just raising our involvement one step through their invitation."

Dr. Seda and Dr. Vogel both said that, as representatives from the AVMA and from the United States, they are treated well and truly have a voice in the OIE process. Dr. Vallat, for one, said he thinks America has experience with controlling animal diseases that could benefit other countries.

"I am not worried for the USA because I know that the system is good," he said. "We see that in the USA, the principal animal diseases are eradicated, and we have not seen new introductions for many years.

"I think that the United States provides a good example as being a country that has the means for effective control of the introduction of disease, and the means to provide efficient surveillance of disease."