The Veterinary Services Laboratory of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Veterinary Services Department continues to make tremendous strides in its field, providing a critical service as Barbados seeks to protect its animal population and related industries.
Despite its small size and staff complement, the laboratory continues to "punch above its weight", providing clinical diagnostic services to Barbados, as well as making valuable contributions to international scientific research.
Staffed by a pathologist, five technologists, two technicians and an incinerator attendant, the lab is divided in eight sections: Histology, which deals with post mortems; Clinical Microbiology – the study of disease causing microorganisms; Food Microbiology- the study of food-borne pathogens; Residues; Serology – the examination of blood serum and bodily fluids; Clinical Pathology – the study and diagnosis of diseases; Parasitology – the study of parasites and their hosts and Molecular Diagnostics.
Over the last six years, the laboratory has been listed as the best in the English-speaking Caribbean by major international agencies and consultants, including the Pan American Health Organization, the United States Department of Agriculture, the Inter American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, and the World Organisation for Animal Health.
It offers a comprehensive diagnostic service to private veterinarians, farmers, pet owners, the horse racing community and other government departments. These include post mortem and incineration services, as well as the diagnosis of animal- related diseases.??
The department has, over the years, lent its expertise to issues affecting the animal population in Barbados, whether on a national level, such as diagnosing the local fish kill of 1999, or to individual clients and farmers. The lab staff is on hand to deal with any problems which may occasionally arise in the local industries, to ensure Barbadians have access to a safe supply of animals and animal products.
Laboratory Manager, David Elcock, explained the scope of the facility’s work, noting that "as long as it relates to animals or animal diseases, we are the sole entity in Barbados which deals with such things. It will definitely fall under our purview."
The laboratory has done Barbados proud in the international scientific community, being recognised globally for its work by gracing the cover of prestigious English magazine The British Veterinary Record, as well as having its articles appearing in the Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal, another internationally known scientific publication. The laboratory also received international acclaim for its part in discovering a new species of the bacteria Leptospira in Barbados.
"We have had a lot of international accreditation from the results we have had. When we dealt with the fish kill in 1999, we were the laboratory that diagnosed that problem. We have worked with many of the local industries such as the pig and poultry industries, addressing any issues which may crop up from time to time. We have had a lot of breakthroughs and the lab has done pretty well over the years," Mr. Elcock remarked.
Senior Veterinary Officer, Dr. Mark Trotman, pointed out the facility has expanded significantly from its humble beginnings in 1971, moving from basic laboratory work to more cutting edge technology.
"One of the things we are working on now is trying to implement Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technology, which is DNA typing if you want to call it that, for animal diseases and many other things as well. We have the expertise and the equipment. We are just trying to put things on stream so we can carry out that service which is quite impressive for a lab of this size," he said.
PCR is a scientific technique which enables researchers to produce millions of copies of a single or few a copies of a DNA sequence in a relatively short period of time.
Dr. Trotman revealed that there was also a proposal for the facility to become a regional reference laboratory, since several of the islands do not have such capacity for diagnosis. This, he surmised, would prove beneficial to Barbados as it seeks to safeguard its borders from any potential threats.
Further underscoring this point, Lab Manager, David Elcock, added that while the laboratory’s work with disease diagnosis was critical, they also sought to be proactive through the Veterinary Department’s surveillance programme for local livestock.
The facility conducts surveys in the various animal industries, including poultry, cattle and fish to ensure that the local stock remains safe.
To this end, the lab is presently collaborating with the Animal Health and Epidemiology Departments on a number of programmes including the National Tuberculosis and Brucellosis survey, the H1N1 survey in pigs and an ongoing Salmonella survey in poultry.
"We have just finished our national Tuberculosis and Brucellosis survey in cattle and those are two diseases that can affect humans. These are called zoonotic diseases and they can affect humans who drink the milk… We are running a lot of surveys in poultry because Barbados’ poultry industry is a million dollar sector, so it needs to be protected," Mr. Elcock said.
A zoonotic disease is one which can be transferred from animals to humans and vice versa.
According to Mr. Elcock, the laboratory is also undertaking several research projects and studies which could prove beneficial to Barbados as it seeks to keep abreast of issues affecting animal stock.
"We are doing projects with other international agencies like the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture and the Food and Agriculture Organization. We are also looking at diseases in fish. Some of the projects we have in mind; for example, we are looking at Red Tide and how it affects the region especially from ships that come to Barbados and bilge their tanks in the water…we discussed that with the Coastal Zone Management Unit. So there are a lot of other things on the horizon."
Foods of animal origin entering Barbados are also analysed by the food microbiology section of the laboratory to ensure they adhere to the requisite safety standards.
"We also look at foods that come into Barbados for the first time… foods of animal origin such as cheese, milk, butter, corned beef… those type of items when they come into the island… our animal health assistants would take a representative sample and send it here where we do food safety testing to make sure it is free of certain disease causing microorganisms," Mr. Elcock pointed out.
The introduction of infectious diseases could spell disaster for local farmers and the public if they were to gain a foothold in Barbados, therefore, a facility such as the Veterinary Services Laboratory has a vital role to play.
The laboratory continues to prove the old adage that "size doesn’t matter", ensuring the local animal herd remains secure, and Barbadians continue to have a safe supply of products, while still making their mark in the international scientific community.