As governments around the world seek to reign in spending and reduce deficits, ministers and civil servants will be looking to not only save money but to also not upset the voting public.

What the public views as “essential” services are usually only tinkered with, but those services that stay out of the headlines until they are really needed tend to be much easier to cut, and the consequent reduction in expenditure looks good – at least in the short term. Animal health and disease surveillance are, possibly, areas where the axe can fall relatively easily.

While perhaps not the sort of message that governments looking to reduce expenditure want to hear, in late July, the FAO argued that billions of dollars could be saved by stepping up the prevention and control of high impact animal disease, some of which pose a direct threat to human health.

Spending now, even if it is an investment for the future, does not currently appeal. But according to the FAO, the future could be increasingly difficult.

The FAO reiterates that emerging threats can be related to increased urbanization and strongly growing urban demand for meat, milk and eggs. A rapid increase and intensification in poultry production in East Asia, for example, translated into a five-fold increase in duck meat output between 1985 and 2008, over 21 billion animals were produced for food globally, a figure expected to rise by 50% by 2020.


“We are expecting the costs to human, animal and plant health of these pathogens, and their overall economic costs, to rise substantially over the next decades” says Juan Lubroth, FAO’s chief veterinary officer.

The FAO takes the UK as an example. A 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease was estimated to have cost the government and the private sector between US$25 and US$30 billion. An interesting country to pick, given that the UK is proposing that its Health Protection Agency, an independent body that protects health and well-being and has infectious diseases within its remit, be abolished. The proposal comes only weeks after the announcement that two animal health bodies in the country would be “merged”.

The FAO continues that the 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak cost China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada between US$30 and US$50 billion. Will those countries seek to curtail expenditure in the same way as the UK?

Worryingly, for those with an eye on the future, the FAO notes that the collective influenza virus pool currently circulating in humans, poultry, pigs and other animals is becoming more diverse with new strains of the virus across different hosts becoming increasingly common.

“This is not science fiction,” adds Lubroth. “The threats are very real. Deadly and economically devastating livestock epidemics have existed throughout history but there is no doubt that more pathogens are emerging – and spreading. The good news is that with the right policies, they can be better detected and contained.”