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Anderson lambasts "appalling" vet research

23 January 2002 18:00 GMT

by Bea Perks, BioMedNet News

Epidemiologist Roy Anderson, widely credited with formulating the government's culling policy during the UK's 11-month foot-and-mouth (FMD) epidemic, today launched an uncompromising counter-attack on veterinary scientists. Many vets have openly criticized Anderson, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College in London, for failing to take account of their research, notably studies based on the last British FMD outbreak in 1968.

But that research is of "appalling" quality, Anderson told a group of medical physicists today at a symposium on Simulation and Modeling Applied to Medicine, organized by the Institute of Physics in London. "A lot of experimentation in veterinary science needs to be done again," he said.

Anderson and his team had modelled the epidemic, officially declared over by the International Epizootic Office (OIE) in Paris on Tuesday, not on animal studies but on what is known about the transmission of human sexually transmitted diseases.

"It wasn't all that difficult to transfer this to a veterinary contact," said Anderson, who rejects criticisms from vets and farmers that his models are flawed.

"The vet profession felt very offended that scientists were making the decisions," he recalled. But it was their calls for an alternative vaccination program, he asserts, that confused farmers and vets alike, caused a blip in the culling program, and led to a rise in disease transmission rate between April and July 2001.

The blip is thought to have prompted the government to delay a General Election, from May to August 2001.

Anderson now promotes vaccination of livestock to prevent another epidemic, but still insists that vaccinating flocks and herds once the virus had taken hold would have prolonged the epidemic.

He is not impressed by arguments that lessons learnt during the 1968 epidemic were ignored. "The quality of the quantitative data was appalling," said Anderson. "Veterinarians should be taught a little bit of mathematics and statistics."

The remark incenses one vet who actively campaigned for vaccination.

"The 1968 report ... was a very thorough inquiry," said Susan Haywood, honorary senior fellow in the Department of Veterinary Pathology at University of Liverpool. At the end of the inquiry, she adds, it was recommended that a sufficient supply of FMD vaccine should always be available in case of a similar emergency.

As for questioning her peers' grasp of statistics, she is momentarily speechless. "Oh! Excuse me!" she choked. "We think that the statisticians should learn a little bit about stock breeding and agriculture," she told BioMedNet News.

Anderson treated each animal as one piece of data, she says, regardless of wide variations in value. Breeding stock and rare breeds, for example, have a higher value.

"If a veterinarian had been doing this I don't see how it could have happened," she said.

Indeed, says Haywood, the European Union have a special exemption for animals that are valuable, endangered or being used for research purposes. Animals that fit these criteria are eligible for vaccination and escape destruction, she says. But Anderson, she recalls, advised the British Government not to take up this offer.

Haywood's flock of sheep fitted the criteria; a rare breed that is particularly sensitive to copper. She has championed the breed as a model of the fatal human disease, infantile liver toxicosis, and had just received funding from the Wellcome Trust to continue her research when FMD came to within four miles of her farm.

Her sheep escaped the cull, but not before she had spent #1000 on legal fees trying to persuade the government to allow her to vaccinate.

Anderson is too distanced from the farming and veterinary communities, says Haywood. "He should come out here," she said. "He should get out more."

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