Exercise Athena

What would it cost Australia to borrow skilled personnel, including vets, from other countries during an emergency animal disease event?

This question, among others, was addressed by a 2016 simulation exercise in Australia called Exercise Athena.

“Exercise Athena is unique in that it was the first comprehensive international exercise to test emergency animal disease personnel-sharing arrangements,” said Australian Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Mark Schipp.

“The exercise involved over 100 participants from Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, UK and the USA.

“A lack of skilled personnel can quickly constrain effective emergency response, so these countries made a commitment in 2004 to provide assistance to each other (when required) during an emergency animal disease outbreak.”

As one of the six countries participating in the International Animal Health Emergency Reserve (IAHER) network, Australia led the development in 2016 of an operations manual setting out agreed policies, procedures and key administrative arrangements – including insurance and employment conditions.

“Exercise Athena raised awareness of the operations manual and tested whether it allowed for more efficient use of the IAHER arrangement by signatory countries,” said Dr Schipp.

“The scenario involved an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in Australia where the number of infected properties – and animals on those infected properties – continued to rise throughout the duration of the exercise, creating a sense of pressure and justification for requesting international personnel.”

Australia requested 282 personnel in technical, field and control centre positions. In total, the IAHER signatory countries were able to provide 218 personnel, or 77% of the request.

The total cost (to Australia) of these 282 personnel was estimated to be US$6.5 million per 4-week deployment.

This cost is small in comparison to the estimated cost of a similar sized FMD outbreak in Australia, priced by ABARES at AU$50 billion (US$36.4 billion) over 10 years, an average of over US$300 million per month.

Although it’s difficult to estimate the amount of response time and money saved through access to additional skilled personal, the savings are likely to be significant.

In addition to calculating costs and benefits, Exercise Athena also identified additional work required on the operations manual and assisted all countries with planning.

“All countries identified lessons specific to their own internal processes which affected their support of the IAHER Arrangement. Countries also gained valuable insight into their capacity to provide support. For example, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency participated in Exercise Athena at the same time as responding to a real domestic bovine tuberculosis event,” said Dr Schipp.

“Australia and its partners in the International Animal Health Emergency Reserve are now more prepared than ever for the rapid sharing of personnel across countries in the event of an emergency animal disease event.”

The IAHER Arrangement was activated for the first time by New Zealand in August 2017, only 8 months after Exercise Athena, to assist with the Mycoplasma bovis response. Deployment under the IAHER Arrangement is still ongoing but to date Australia has deployed eight highly skilled people to New Zealand to assist with epidemiological investigations, surveillance, tracing and laboratory diagnosis.

The IAHER Arrangement benefits both the recipient country, which receives skilled assistance, and the donor country whose personnel gain valuable experience in a real outbreak situation.

Rhyll Vallis and Phoebe Readford
Department of Agriculture and Water Resources

This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal


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