For animals as much as people, prevention is not only better than cure: it is also more cost-effective.
But for livestock farmers already operating on tight margins, it can be difficult to recognise the invisible cost saving of a disease outbreak avoided.
For example, a single outbreak of avian flu cost the Netherlands alone an estimated €150 million in 2003, with the culling of some 30 million birds. The UK is facing similar losses from the ongoing record outbreak.
Prevention through vaccination, biosecurity, or good feeding and housing can spare the cost of animal disease without authorities and industry ever truly knowing the full figure at stake.
With new EU rules on veterinary medicines entering into force on Friday 28 January, livestock farmers will have access to a wider range of options when it comes to preventing disease. This should be embraced as an opportunity to invest, rather than an upfront cost with returns that are hard to quantify.
A plethora of new benefits for EU farmers
One of the key changes under the new regulations is that veterinary prescriptions will become valid throughout the EU, giving livestock producers greater flexibility in accessing medicines for more species and across more countries.
With greater availability of animal medicines, and other products that boost immunity to disease, farmers and veterinarians will be better placed to prevent and respond to the unique health threats and challenges facing their animals.
Research suggests that farmers developing herd-specific action plans together with their veterinarian can help increase productivity by preventing disease and ill-health.
For example, one study found that bespoke strategies to reduce disease and antibiotic use led to higher daily weight gain, lower mortality, and higher profitability on pig farms.
The new rules also have the potential to stimulate more innovation and breakthroughs in veterinary research and development, both by lifting the administrative burden of bringing new products to the market, and by opening up market access.
Meanwhile, a more streamlined approvals process for veterinary products, particularly those used for minor species or for uncommon diseases, will make vaccine and product development more cost-effective for smaller operations, bringing more diversity and competition to the sector.
Allowing veterinary medicines to be imported within the EU — and in some cases, from third countries — more easily will also make Europe a more attractive market for the major manufacturers.
Database of approved medicines and system for notifiable diseases
With some of the barriers and deterrents to innovation removed, European farmers and veterinarians are likely to benefit from next-generation products that are more affordable and effective at reducing the risk of disease.
Finally, a new EU-wide database of approved animal medicines will allow veterinarians and farmers to find out where a medicine or treatment might be available, and to consider possible alternatives — a valuable resource, given how three quarters of veterinarians look up medicines daily or weekly.
This will maximise the chance of finding the most appropriate product according to the farmer’s specific circumstances and increase the likelihood of success in keeping livestock healthy and free from disease.
Meanwhile, a new system for notifiable diseases introduced under the Animal Health Law will also mean greater consistency across Europe regarding imminent and nearby disease threats.
This is especially important for diseases like avian influenza, African swine fever and others, which rely on biosecurity measures for containment, making early warnings critical in preventing outbreaks from spreading.
To conclude, it may be tempting for farmers to see disease prevention as an additional cost on top of their daily overheads, especially if they believe the risk to be low.
But preventing outbreaks not only helps them avoid unnecessary direct and indirect losses, as well as animal suffering - it also maximises the productivity of the sector. Prevention is better, and ultimately more profitable than any cure.
Nancy De Briyne is executive director of the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE).