I started my government vet career as a Veterinary Inspector, TB testing and undertaking TB reactor post mortem examinations in abattoirs and knackers yards. Within a year I was temporarily promoted to being on call for farm animal welfare calls and notifiable diseases. The first time I was called on a Saturday evening for a suspect bluetongue case, I was both nervous and excited. Thankfully, I was able to negate the case on clinical examination.
The challenge of never quite knowing what I was going to get was enjoyable. The day to day work in field services in Carmarthen was mostly working with bovine TB. I enjoyed being able to look after a specific area and getting to know the farmers as well as the local area. I was able to expand my knowledge into animal-by- products and I was keen to get my teeth into new work areas as they came along.
After having my children, I decided I wanted a change and I saw an advert for maternity cover as a Veterinary Investigation Officer (VIO) in Carmarthen Veterinary Investigation Centre. I applied and was offered the post, and started to learn the job. Two years later, a permanent role became available and I applied and got the job. My five year old daughter tells everyone I am a doctor for dead animals but carrying out post mortem examinations is only part of our job. Before I started here I had no idea the role was so varied.
VIOs are integral in the surveillance and monitoring of new and emerging diseases in England and Wales. We work in partnership with vets in practice and many organisations including public health authorities and local authorities. These partners help us detect early and investigate new or re-emerging diseases and look at disease patterns and trends. Most of this work is done on the ground through our discussions with vets in practice. Threats can come from any direction and can include novel disease or pathogens like Schmallenberg virus, exotic diseases like bluetongue, new variants of pathogens, antimicrobial resistance, public health concerns such as salmonella and changes to endemic disease trends.
The information captured is shared with a large network of industry and government organisations and vets in practice via the Surveillance Intelligence Unit and much of the information is now presented in our online dashboards . I am currently increasing my expertise in poultry management and disease by undertaking an online course and I have just joined the Avian Expert Group. I am looking forward to gaining more experience and expertise in this area.
My current role
The day to day job involves post mortem examinations on farm animals, commenting on and releasing diagnostic test results to determine cause of disease or death. I discuss and provide advice on unusual cases and diagnostic testing with vets in practice and others; this in itself is no mean feat.
First, we collect a full history from both the vet and the owner or animal keeper and then we conduct the post mortem examination. A full diagnostic post mortem takes time while we examine all the major systems within the body to see if there are any changes to what we would expect to find in a healthy animal. Once we’ve worked out that an organ looks abnormal, we have to describe it and decide what may be the cause of the abnormality (there is often a long list).
Then we have to decide what samples we need to take and what further testing should be carried out to investigate the cause of the pathology. I have had sheep come in after dying suddenly and found poisonous plants in their rumen and further investigation is not necessary to confirm diagnosis, but other times we need to send off samples for bacteriology, virology, or histology (to name but a few).
Once we’ve finished the post mortem investigation we need to think about the possible implications of what we saw and what advice we can give the submitting vet. Often the cause of death with the correct tests is straightforward, and there are seasonal trends but we also see the unusual. I have recently had a case of Blackleg in a ewe lamb, something one of my colleagues who has worked here for many years has only seen once. We often have to consult with both veterinary and scientific colleagues who can advise us on the most up to date research being carried out on specific diseases or tests.
We also give advice and guidance to vets in practice on infectious and non-infectious diseases and what testing can be done to determine the cause of the clinical signs they see. We share this advice and knowledge regardless of whether samples are sent in to us or not. Zoonotic diseases are of particular importance to us due to their potential impact on public health and in these cases we will often visit the farm in question and work with the vet to formulate more detailed advice to the farm, practice and public health bodies.
As part of my role I am also a field epidemiology investigator and I have been fortunate to work closely with the APHA team of epidemiologists on the avian influenza outbreak at the beginning of 2017. To help me in my role, I am carrying out postgraduate study with the Royal Veterinary College on Veterinary Epidemiology and Public Health.
My work also gives me the opportunity to carry out varied project work, both scientific and business orientated. I have recently been involved with a project refreshing our surveillance webpages on our Vet Gateway. This has involved writing and reviewing all our online public surveillance information providing vets in practice with the information and guidance they need. It has given me a much better awareness of the variety of services we offer to our vets in practice and to the industries. It has also given me the opportunity to meet different people within APHA, and network with new people in different teams scattered across the UK.