Barbados has taken another step towards the development of a comprehensive action plan to deal with the outbreak of any highly contagious animal disease in the island.

This follows the hosting of a table top simulation recently by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Veterinary Services Department, with assistance from regional and international veterinary services stakeholders and agricultural agencies.

The exercise focused on improving communication and coordination, resource planning, preparedness and response, if such an event were to occur in the region.

It drew upon the resources of several key government departments including the Royal Barbados Police Force, the Ministry of Health, the Veterinary Services Department, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Sanitation Services Authority, to test their response and gauge feedback to a simulated outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in Barbados and the Caribbean.

The table top simulation was held simultaneously in nine other countries – Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Haiti, Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, with participants linked together virtually through the use of the internet.??

While local disaster preparedness officials have developed response plans in the event of mass casualties such as vehicle accidents, natural disasters including hurricanes and earthquakes or man-made calamities such as chemical spills, veterinary officials felt the need to "flesh out" any issues surrounding the impact of serious animal diseases entering the island and ensure adequate protocols were developed to deal with such matters.

"There are so many facets involved in responding to an incident. An animal disease emergency should be treated in the same way as any major national incident such as a fire or mass casualty, a hurricane or flood. It requires the same coordinated and multidisciplinary response. I think that was the main thing we were able to thrash out through this exercise," Senior Veterinary Officer in the Veterinary Services Department, Ministry of Agriculture, Dr. Mark Trotman underlined.

While admitting that Barbados had some way to go in terms of developing an adequate, specialised response to an animal disease outbreak, he, nonetheless, praised the setup of the national disaster response team.

"Certainly within the national context, I think we have a very solid infrastructure in terms of the incident command system. What we need to do now is plug the information relevant to an animal disease into that existing infrastructure and develop specific plans for animal diseases…," Dr. Trotman pointed out.

While much attention has been given to the mitigation of natural and man-made disasters, the Senior Veterinary Officer stressed that animal related illnesses could have a similarly devastating impact on the public health and economy of the island.

In addition, the need to adequately prepare and develop an action plan has become more critical in light of the devastating impact of recent diseases on the global farming sector.

Emerging and re-emerging diseases including Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), more popularly referred to as Mad Cow Disease and Avian Influenza (H5N1) on European and Asian animal stock has left farmers on those continents reeling from heavy losses.??

"About 10 years ago there was an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in the United Kingdom and the losses were staggering, not only to the animals, but to the tourism industry and there was loss of life from depression and suicide as people’s entire livelihoods were completely destroyed overnight. We need to recognise it’s not only about losing an animal here and there, but we could actually destroy the agricultural basis of the economy of this country if we don’t really pay attention to effectively responding to any threats of animal disease," Dr. Trotman maintained.

Citing the example of the local poultry industry, he suggested that the introduction a highly contagious pathogen such as Avian Influenza could potentially wipe out the 200 million dollar subsector overnight.

"The effect can be highly catastrophic. We tend not to realise that an outbreak of a major animal disease can be just as catastrophic as a natural disaster but not as high profile because there may not be massive loss of life or infrastructure. But what is destroyed is the economy of the country," he stressed.

Lessons learnt from this exercise will be shared with the CaribVET network at the next Steering Committee meeting, to be held at the CARICOM headquarters, Guyana, May 7 to 9, which may pave the way for a future formal regional partnership on animal disease outbreak management.

"The next step is to work a lot more closely with all of the stakeholders to develop effective response plans, to where possible, carry out regular simulations and studies, monitor closely the disease trends and threats that may be posed to the region…We need to pay a little more attention to see how best we can establish things such as a regional task force to respond to threats in other Caribbean countries," the Senior Veterinary Officer said.

The table top simulation has provided veterinary officials with a lot to ponder as they seek to mitigate the introduction of any animal related disease into the island. It has emphasised the need for a concerted, coordinated effort if Barbados and the region are to maintain a disease free animal population.


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