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Epidemiology and Pathobiology Training and Research Unit at the University of Sydney

Project start date: 01 January 2001
Project end date: 01 December 2005
Publication date: 01 December 2005
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Australia derives a large income by being a major player in international trade in livestock and livestock products. In 1999, the gross value of livestock production was $13.4bn of which $11.5bn came from exports. The Australian economy, and the rural sector in particular, has a major dependence on maintaining this trade. Our long-standing position as a trader has been based on efficient production, marketing, quality assurance and access to major markets in the developed world. Most of these markets have a favourable status for the major epidemic diseases of livestock and, compared to many competitors, Australia enjoys privileged access due to the historical absence of important livestock diseases.

This project was undertaken because a critical shortage of the skills required by our livestock industries in the new trading world is looming. In the 1980s, State government funding of postgraduate training underpinned the development of new livestock disease specialists, but this has now ceased completely. In addition, opportunities for new specialists to gain on-the-job experience in livestock diseases have diminished dramatically with the large scale reduction of State government veterinary laboratory and field extension services; NSW has closed 2 of 5 veterinary diagnostic laboratories, Victoria 2 of 5 and South Australia closed one laboratory after the conclusion of the BTEC program and has outsourced the management of the second laboratory, while Queensland has reduced the services of 2 of 5 laboratories. In addition, Victoria and NSW have introduced fee for service livestock submissions, resulting in a substantial reduction in material sent for examination.

The loss of trained livestock health specialists, together with the loss of government employed district veterinary officers and epidemiologists, has dramatically weakened the national defences against disease incursions. During this project a new unit in Farm Animal and Veterinary Public Health was established in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney. A Chair in Farm Animal Health, Professor Richard Whittington, was appointed to co-ordinate and manage the Unit and take responsibility for research, training, and advisory services.

An assistant, Ms Marion Saddington, was appointed to support the research and development of the unit. A comprehensive research program in epidemiology and pathobiology was established and is ongoing. Research and training programs in epidemiology, disease surveillance and food safety were developed and delivered to postgraduate and undergraduate students through the Unit. A new degree program in Veterinary Public Health Management was established and currently has 49 students. Undergraduate teaching activities were enhanced. Ties were established with senior academics at the University of California Davis (Professor Ian Gardner), University of Colorado (Professor Mo Salman) and Michigan State University (Professor Ed Mather), and with the University of Glasgow (Professor Stuart Reid) to enable future development of joint teaching and research programs in epidemiology and public health. Professors Gardner, Mather and Reid have visited Sydney and Dr Toribio has visited Michigan State.

A viable business entity was developed which is financially self-supporting through provision of research capability, post-graduate courses and consultancies. The Farm Animal Health and Veterinary Public Health group within the Faculty of Veterinary Science consists of university and industry funded staff and both are required to perform its essential functions. Financial sustainability depends on a flow of funds from external sources, including student fee income for post graduate course work programs, and consultancy and research program income.

At the time of writing there is a steady stream of new research program income attributable to the initiative and expertise of academic staff, and post graduate student numbers are rising, suggesting sustainability. However, support from industry will need to be sustained to tackle the increasing number of issues related to animal health, food safety and public health. Staff from the unit are active in the research community and also in industry groups and the media, ensuring wide communication of research results. Staff from the unit work together with MLA and other stakeholders in the livestock sector to promote the benefits of the research programs. An example is the large role taken by staff of the unit in development of the OJD Harvest Year for MLA.

This MLA project has led to immediate benefits for industry, and many of these will endure into the long term:

undergraduate veterinary students better equipped to enter rural veterinary practice

graduates working in animal health now have a flexible post graduate coursework program to learn skills in epidemiology and public health for immediate application

leadership and project management are now key elements in post graduate veterinary education so that the process of change can be smoothed

local and international networks of Sydney postgraduates have been established for informal exchange of information

an immediate benefit in risk assessment for Australia

a steady stream of young post graduates is becoming available to fill retirement positions

young post doctoral fellows and PhD research students have greater opportunity to work on real world problems and provide service longer term to the livestock sector

significant critical mass now exists to conduct research on priority livestock health issues

The beneficiaries of this MLA project were livestock producers, processors and associated interests throughout Australia. It should be noted that the benefits of this project werelong term as it has already and will continue to enhance human capacity. This accrued benefits for future livestock producers.

Recommendations from this project include the need to recognise the central role played by MLA in initiating the project through promotional materials prepared for the post graduate training program and in research reports prepared annually by the Faculty of Veterinary Science. An important recommendation relates to identification of other training gaps, particularly in food safety and anatomical pathology. There is need for a detailed and focussed program as anatomical pathology is dying out as a discipline in Australia and yet it underpins differential diagnosis of most diseases as well as meat inspection.

It is very difficult to identify training opportunities for young veterinarians in anatomical pathology or any of the related laboratory-based disciplines. Consequently it is recommended that MLA seek industry support for investment in training and research in food safety (in the context of veterinary public health) and anatomical pathology and related fields.

Finally, support from industry for research programs related to livestock health will need to be sustained to tackle the increasing number of issues related to animal health, food safety and public health, and to ensure human capacity in the future. Young researchers need to be retained in the service of the livestock sector to replace older researchers who will soon retire from the workforce. It is recommended that MLA explore options for identification and maintenance of livestock health research teams within Australia, because these will be needed to meet future challenges.

More information

Project manager: Johann Schroder
Primary researcher: The University of Sydney