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Establishing resilient animal health systems to reduce biological threats

Recent examples of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, such as Ebola or zoonotic influenza, highlight the difficulty of predicting when and where new diseases will naturally emerge or where existing ones will resurface. Moreover, animal pathogens may be used as bio-weapons or in bioterror because they have a high impact, are cheap, easy to acquire and propagate, and can be readily smuggled through border checks undetected. The biotechnology revolution means that options for engineering animal pathogens are increasing all the time while the cost of doing so is decreasing.

Animals themselves play an important role as biosensors for accidental or deliberate releases of infectious agents and toxins, and for emerging diseases. The same disease surveillance and early detection systems that are in place to detect day-to-day occurrences of natural outbreaks, within countries and at national borders, will also detect deliberate and accidental releases.

Indeed, the most effective and sustainable way to protect against threats from deliberate and accidental releases of animal pathogens is to strengthen existing systems for surveillance, early on-farm detection and rapid response, and for biosafety and biosecurity, whilst fostering scientific networks that work towards altruistic goals. This approach has multiple collateral benefits for animal health, agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, animal welfare, and economies.

In meeting its mandate to improve animal health, veterinary public health, and animal welfare worldwide, the OIE takes the threat posed by the accidental or deliberate release of animal pathogens very seriously. Acknowledging the important role of coordination between animal and public Health Services and health systems in building resilience against animal disease including zoonoses, the OIE organised, in close collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), a Global Conference on Biological Threat Reduction, last June in Paris.

This three-day conference brought together all the key players of the topic. The participants who represented the public health, animal health, ecosystem health, and security sectors included educators, policy- and decision-makers, scientists, security officers, veterinarians and medical doctors. The conference focused on enhancing collaboration and on building a consensus for action to strengthen the ability of public and animal health systems to prevent, detect and respond to all biological threats whether they are deliberate, accidental or natural; in particular, at the animal source of diseases transmissible to humans.

A key outcome of this unprecedented meeting was that good governance of animal and public health national systems, allowing early detection and rapid response to any new disease outbreak, protects the society and neighbouring countries from potential disasters of natural, accidental or intentional origin.

Considering that 60% of human diseases originate in animals, the two organisations – the OIE and WHO – collectively share a critical role in setting standards to protect against zoonotic disease. Compliance with the OIE’s Intergovernmental Standards and WHO’s International Health Regulations ensures resilience against all infectious disease threats because the tools and systems used to detect diseases early and to control them quickly are the same whether the cause is natural, accidental or deliberate.

But today’s challenge for many countries is to ensure that they have the political will, infrastructure, resources, and effective governance to apply the OIE and WHO international standards. And appropriate cooperation between national animal health, public health, and security sectors is crucial to ensure that intergovernmental standards are respected. Robust well-governed animal and human health systems are resilient and provide protection against a spectrum of threats from naturally occurring diseases to emerging diseases, bioterrorism and laboratory accidents. On the contrary, countries with weak health systems are particularly vulnerable and, in an age when infectious diseases can travel across borders so quickly, this is a threat to the whole international community.

Consequently, following the conference and on the basis of the work done for ten years on this topic, the OIE has published a new version of its strategy for bio-threat reduction, which focuses on strengthening, enhancing, and developing cross-links between existing health systems.

Moreover, this strategy is consistent with and supported by the OIE’s Sixth Strategic Plan (2016–2020) adopted in May 2015 by the General Assembly of OIE Delegates. It cuts across all of its six objectives.

The OIE’s strategy for bio-threat reduction endorsed by the Paris Global Conference addresses five key areas:

  • maintaining scientific expertise as well as setting standards and guidelines
  • good governance, capacity-building and implementation of the One Health concept
  • global disease intelligence and updates on the latest methods for disease prevention and control
  • international cooperation and solidarity between countries
  • advocacy and communication.

A summarised paper on this strategy is available on line1.

The social and economic costs and benefits of investing in health systems in peacetime far outweigh the costs of responding to a crisis linked with a preventable biological disaster. Investments in the systems needed to support these policies should be considered a priority in all countries.

Thanks to its scientific network and its tools, aimed at helping its Member Countries to improve the performance of their national Veterinary Services, the good governance of their animal health systems and legislation, and their level of expertise, the OIE will continue to support this objective throughout the implementation of its strategy for bio-threat reduction within its Sixth Strategic Plan.

The implementation of the strategy will be in close conjunction with OIE partners involved in the One Health concept (WHO and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO]), as well as the United Nations Office of Disease Affairs (UNODA) and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540. This collaboration also includes, among others, INTERPOL, the World Customs Organisation, G7, G20 and the Global Partnership, who all participated in the Global Conference.

1Biological threat reduction strategy. Strengthening global biological security

Contact : media@oie.int