More than two-thirds of Swiss voters have approved stricter measures to fight animal diseases. Opponents who forced Sunday's referendum against the change to the law had feared it could lead to compulsory vaccinations.
The amendment to the law on animal diseases - which received 68.3 per cent popular support - was guided by factors such as climate change and the arrival of more recent pathologies such as mad cow disease.
But that didn’t satisfy opponents behind the referendum after concerns over the impact of a vaccination campaign against bluetongue ordered by the federal veterinary authorities in 2008.
They say livestock breeders found premature births, spontaneous abortions, unexplained illnesses and even deaths among their animals. As they talked to each other, farmers traced the problem back to the vaccinations.
However, the causality of this relationship has not been scientifically verified despite studies carried out by the universities of Bern and Zurich. The livestock breeders were not compensated and anyone who refused to get his own animals vaccinated was fined.
The revised legislation does not, in fact, include compulsory vaccination even if its opponents fear this will eventually happen as early warning, prevention and increased monitoring are part of the package. The government has denied any such aim.
“There is nothing in the law that says the Swiss veterinary services will start immediately vaccinating against any disease that turns up in Europe or Switzerland,” said Christian Griot, head of the government-run Institute of Virology and Immunoprophylaxis near Bern. “There are just some people who try and read between the lines, but I feel this issue is irrelevant here.”
According to the Federal Veterinary Office, there is no difference between the current legislation dating back to 1966 and the revised law when it comes to vaccination. Any decision to launch a vaccination campaign remains a government prerogative and would only take place after consulting all the parties involved.
There are times when the decision has to come from the top because farmers cannot always fight diseases alone, said Griot.
“If we hadn’t implemented compulsory vaccinations and left the fight up to individual farmers, I don’t think we would have got rid of bluetongue as quickly as we did,” he told swissinfo.ch.
The bluetongue vaccination campaign, which ran between 2008 and 2010 and cost up to SFr20 million ($21 million) annually, certainly had an impact.
After the disease hit Switzerland, according to government figures just one cow in 2007, and only 76 animals had fallen ill by the end of last year since the outbreak was declared. Based on numbers from other affected countries, the veterinary office says an estimated 16,000 cattle and 24,000 sheep would have died without vaccination.
Each year between 2008 and 2010, two million sheep and cattle were vaccinated - around 80 per cent of livestock, enough to prevent an epidemic. Since this year, bluetongue disease is officially eradicated in Switzerland.
“When it comes to fighting animal diseases, three years to eradicate one is considered fast,” said veterinary office spokeswoman Nathalie Rochat. “But one shouldn’t underestimate the impact of animal disease, not just the illness itself and its cost, but also the economic impact due to trade restrictions.”
In the Netherlands for example, the direct and indirect costs for the livestock industry was €80 million in 2007 alone after bluetongue spread across northern and central Europe, according to a 2009 article in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.
For the authorities, parliament and most of the farming world, the law’s real focus is on monitoring and surveillance to prevent future outbreaks. Prevention is considered a central plank of the government’s animal health strategy.
According to Griot, globalisation and climate change are two factors that guided the revision of the law, along with the arrival of pathologies such as mad cow disease, bluetongue and Schmallenberg virus, diseases that were not around in the 1950s and 1960s.
“In those days, international trade was not such a big issue,” he said.
“People and animals are also travelling more and more, while products from around the world are being imported. We have to be better prepared for emerging diseases, new viruses or bacteria arriving in Switzerland.”
For Griot, who is on the frontline every time a new animal disease makes an appearance or threatens to do so, the revised legislation will lead to a few changes because of increased monitoring.
“What it will change for us is that we will most likely have more cases reaching us,” he pointed out. “This will benefit the cattle, sheep and pig populations because we will have a better idea of what diseases are in the country.”
So with experts, authorities and politicians seemingly in agreement that the updated law is a worthwhile project, why was there is opposition to it? While for some, it was piloted by the anti-vaccine movement, for historian Olivier Meuwly, the vote reflected something very different.
“Votes about vaccinations highlight the underlying tension between individual freedoms and state intervention,” he told swissinfo.ch. “The state threatens to take the individual’s place, there is the potential of intervention in the intimate sphere.”
What is important, he said, is to realise the vote was not necessarily decided on the basis of science or facts. In 1882, voters turned down a law on epidemics that would have introduced compulsory vaccination against smallpox, heeding calls that it threatened to impose rules from the top.
“That’s what happens with direct democracy. People listen to opinions but don’t necessarily realise what they are voting about,” Meuwly told swissinfo.ch.
“Votes are an opinion poll, a snapshot of an ambience, of the philosophy of the moment.”
68.3% of voters approved the revision to the law, after results from all of Switzerland's 26 cantons.
Turnout was very low with only 27.4% of the 5.1 million eligible voters casting ballots.
The Institute of Virology and Immunoprophylaxis (IVI), part of the Swiss Federal Veterinary Office, is the accredited institute for the diagnosis, surveillance and control of highly contagious animal diseases such as avian influenza, foot-and-mouth disease and classical swine fever.
The IVI also conducts research on these viruses as well as on emerging viral diseases and possible transmission to humans.
The proposed measures are intended to improve prevention and early detection of infectious animal diseases. The amendment redefines the division of tasks between the federal authorities and the cantons.
The government would be awarded jurisdiction over prevention and control of animal diseases, including the financing of prevention activities.
It may levy a temporary tax on holders of livestock, it determines the proportion of costs to be covered by such a tax and the part to be covered by the cantons.
It can manage vaccine banks, buy vaccines against animal diseases and distribute them for free or at a discounted price. It can negotiate international treaties on animal health.
The 26 cantons assure implementation of the measures, notably prosecuting cases of non-compliance. If violations of the law occur, the authorities may lay criminal charges. The reform foresees stricter penalties in some cases.
Adopted by parliament in March, the amendment was challenged to a referendum.
Activists claim that the preventive actions the federal authorities might decide on would include compulsory vaccination campaigns, allegations rejected by the government.