Veterinary epidemiology

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Monitoring the health of livestock for better human health

Sciensano studies the evolution of infectious diseases in livestock. We concentrate mainly on zoonoses (in other words infections or diseases that are directly or indirectly transmissible from animals to people and vice versa) and diseases that have a purely economic impact. All these diseases can have direct or indirect consequences for public health, for example through the use of antibiotics they require.

In that context, Sciensano assesses the risks and we compare control scenarios to determine the most appropriate scenario, the so-called “fit for purpose”:

  • keep all animals free from disease, e.g. through preventive treatments
  • focus on early detection, to be able to treat these animals quickly or isolate them from the group
  • prevalence studies, in which the scope and nature of a disease are closely monitored so that actions can be taken in response to a sudden increase
  • cost-benefit analysis of possible policy interventions.

For this research we use data from various surveillance and monitoring systems and SANITEL (the platform for the identification, registration and supervision of animals).
Since man, animal and environment are closely interlinked and form an inseparable whole, the so-called “One Health” concept, Sciensano monitors the use of antimicrobial drugs in livestock and in the veterinary agro-industry. The excessive use of antibiotics in these animals can not only increase their resistance to antibiotics, but also that of man. Sciensano therefore monitors antibiotic resistance closely. In this epidemiological research, we concentrate on infectious animal diseases and the use of antimicrobial drugs for which there is an official control plan. It is organized around four axes that complement each other but also demand a specific methodological approach:

  1. surveillance systems
  2. statistical evaluation of laboratory diagnostics
  3. risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis
  4. epidemiological support in case of crisis.

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Our surveillance and monitoring systems are the cornerstone of our epidemiological research. We often use existing administrative data sources such as Rendac, with information on animal cadavers, or Sanitel, for the computerized management of the identification, registration and supervision of animals (cattle, sheep, goats, deer, poultry). We use specific surveys to gain a better understanding of the presence of specific infections or health problems in livestock. Most of our research is conducted at the request of the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) and focuses on statutorily notifiable animal diseases and animal diseases for which there is an official control plan. We also pay attention to chemical exposure, as when monitoring bee mortality.

Some of our activities focus on the statistical evaluation of diagnostic tests that are used on animals, given the potentially major economic impact of both an incorrect positive or incorrect negative result.
In the same social context, we perform risk assessments and develop scenarios to determine the costs and benefits of possible policy interventions in relation to livestock and in the veterinary agro-industry. The introduction of antibiotics has made a significant contribution to the increase in health and a higher food conversion of livestock. Now, however, we are faced with an increase in antibiotic resistance that is rendering treatments useless. There are more and more resistant organisms due to the inappropriate use (under- and/or over-use) of antibiotics in both human and veterinary practice and in the veterinary agro-industry. The “One-health” paradigm is necessary for intersectoral coordination to reduce resistance to antibiotics. Estimating the economic costs of incorrect use is an important tool in reducing over-use in particular among livestock and in the veterinary agro-industry.
Finally, we offer epidemiological support in the event of a crisis with livestock or in the veterinary agro-industry.


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