MEPs this week formally endorsed measures to address the risks of outbreaks of animal disease such as avian bird flu or foot-and-mouth (FMD) disease. There is also increased emphasis on diseases which are transmissible to humans. The new Animal Health Law reinforces the existing obligatory reporting by farmers, animals professionals and vets. The Animal Health Law does three important things: it links animal health and welfare to human health; it enables the authorities and producers to focus more closely on prevention and control of transmissible animal diseases and it merges around 40 legal acts into one basic act.
This simplification is to be welcomed by all stakeholders in the farming industry. But perhaps most important is the recognition of the link between animal health and human health. The increased emphasis on responsible use of antibiotics is anticipated to tackle the growing issue of antimicrobial resistant infections in humans; this is where VirtualVet comes in.
VirtualVet’s smartphone app and web portal are designed to capture and report, in near real-time, all on farm animal treatments.
Antimicrobials such as antibiotics have been widely used as a cure all for infections since their discovery in the early 20th century, but increasing incidents of antimicrobial resistant strains of bacteria along with the sharp decline in new antimicrobial drug discovery have prompted a movement towards regulation and monitoring of antimicrobial use. New EU legislation details actions to be taken to prevent the unnecessary use of antimicrobials through improved monitoring. Antimicrobial resistance is a major concern in food-producing animals not only because of the economic impact of a deadly, easily transmissible strain causing widespread loss of livestock, but also because of the possibility of a crossover into antimicrobial resistant human diseases.
In 2011 the European Commission put forward a 5 year action plan on antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Several years into this plan and antimicrobial resistance is still rising as seen on the graph showing MRSA spread from 2010 to 2013. The action plan details 7 areas where measures are most necessary, 5 of which would directly benefit from improved monitoring of antimicrobial use.
What is VirtualVet?
VirtualVet is a new app currently in development which aims to provide farmers and veterinarians a reliable, easy to use and accurate data entry system for recording medicine usage and movement records for food-producing animals. With the new EU legislation promoting more accurate drug recording practices for veterinarians and the increasing risk of antibiotic resistant strains of microbes, the move from pen and paper to electronic systems is long overdue.
The application aims to provide a method to quickly, with as much automation as possible, allow customers to record drug usage in field situations. VirtualVet will capture data using the embedded resources of the smartphone and transmit the data via FISpace linking with data and service providers enabling data aggregation by new and existing farm and practice software. Although initially marketed towards the UK and Ireland, VirtualVet access is expected to quickly expand to EU countries.
To create and develop VirtualVet eCow is working alongside the TSSG at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland, Kingswood Computing Ltd in Dublin, Ireland and XLVets.
Software used to update animal movement data, location, drugs used, disease symptoms and clinical diagnosis (where possible)
In some territories where literacy is not strong the icon interface will permit poorly educated users to benefit from FISpace technologies
Data imputed either manually, using a list of options or automatically (such as time and date)
Drug bar codes and animal ear tags readable by the IR or QR code reader or OCR
Functional without an internet connection to avoid hassle on large farms
When connected to the internet data shall be uploaded to a cloud server to prevent loss of records
App will be incorporated into other farm management software when appropriate for ease of access
Ability to sell data to monitoring agencies to offset the cost of software
What are the benefits?
Improved compliance with drug recording practices
For most farmers the process of recording medicine usage in food-producing animals involves animal ID numbers and drug names scribbled in a notebook, possibly with manual entry into a computer afterwards. Data entry has been this way for decades and the transition to electronic data entry will not come easily unless there is a simple reliable method for meeting the requirements for drug recording. VirtualVet aims to provide exactly that for farmers and vets across the EU with a simple, cheap application designed for use across language barriers with an intuitive four button icon system and limited manual data entry.
Improved recording of animal movement
Movement records are currently monitored through an EU passport scheme which have evolved from paper based systems and can be confusing; humans are notoriously bad at transposing long numbers by hand. A major objective of this app is making the keeping of passport information easier; farmers are often penalised for failing to keep records even when there is no intent to deceive the authorities. It is becoming a requirement of EU and national directives that the use of veterinary medicines is recorded at the point of use, however there are no tools as yet to help the veterinarian or farmer to do this other than desktop systems and paper records. For animals such as cattle and sheep where there is a unique ID number then this app will allow the date, location, animal ID to be linked to the drug used. Where animals are not uniquely ID’ed e.g. poultry and pigs then the date, location and drug can be recorded. This app will energise the standardisation of barcoding and in the interim can use OCR technology on product names.
VirtualVet aims to provide data fields for not only the drug name, quantity administered, date and animal ID, but also information about the disease being treated, symptoms recorded and even the disease/treatment site on the animal. Information for disease tracking, whether it is direct recording of the disease or simply recording use of disease specific drugs, can be invaluable for food producers and governments enabling preventative measures to be taken to avoid economic problems.
Withdrawal period checking
Another benefit of the electronic automated system is the prevention of drugs entering our food supply due to withdrawal period checking. Any drug administered to a food-producing animal has a required withdrawal period before that animal can produce any products for human consumption, improved monitoring of this period will help prevent contaminated food entering circulation. One possible implementation of this system involves automatically connecting to a robotic milker to prevent drugs entering the milk supply.
Minimisation of antimicrobial resistance to drugs
With the increased use of antimicrobial drugs as a cure all for livestock farmers, cases of antimicrobial resistant strains of bacteria have been rising. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) have summarised these recent changes in:
These reports highlight antimicrobial resistant strains of particular importance, such as E.coli and MRSA, but also show that the growth of resistant strains is not slowing down. Action must be taken to prevent overuse, misuse and incorrect disposal (release into the environment) of antimicrobials so that we may slow the spread and allow research to discover new antimicrobial drugs. By recording sale and purchase of veterinary medicine, along with disposal of said medicine, it should be simple to discover how and where to improve drug usage and help prevent abuse of antimicrobials.
Minimisation of environmental impacts of drugs
Another benefit of monitoring drug usage is the prevention of the negative environmental impact caused by overuse of antimicrobial drugs. Antimicrobial drugs can enter the environment by being administered and passing through an animal or incorrect disposal of drugs when they are no longer needed or have reached their expiry date. With improved monitoring VirtualVet aims to prevent overuse of antimicrobials and improve drug disposal to minimise the effect veterinary medicines have on the environment.
Monitoring and improvement of veterinarian practices
With the automation and ease of information input, as well as the hopeful standardisation of recording applications to promote collaboration and interoperability, veterinary record keeping such as inventory control and billing will become less time consuming and accessing records created by others could be as easy as viewing your own. Through improved recording methods and data collection it will also be possible for large studies to be conducted, comparing large numbers of veterinary practices to identify issues and improve management to help vets provide the best possible service to customers.