If our health is our wealth, and it is, then our health concerns can also generate a lot of wealth for others. I continue to hear stories of people being hit with scary bills from hospitals and consultants. And now the malaise is spreading to pets, horses and even farm animals. A friend of mine was recently advised that her cat needed its teeth cleaned and that the job could be done for about €380. When pressed to justify this price, the vet explained that the cat needed an anaesthetic before the teeth could be approached.
I can only conclude that medicine in Ireland, for human or animal, is not cheap. Repeatedly we see across EU comparisons which show that medical charges and prices are way higher in Ireland than elsewhere in the EU. The IMF has pinpointed this as an issue that must be addressed as part of our economic recovery.
When visiting the cattle feedlots of Italy and Spain, I was amazed at the low prices of their animal medicines compared to back home. Access to the drugs and vaccines in Spain and Italy also seemed to be a lot freer.
Why should this be if we are all in the same free-trading area?
Each animal health company will always charge as much as it reckons the market will bear, but there's more to it than that.
Unfortunately, Ireland is a high-cost country in which to do any business.
This was illustrated to me recently by seeing a person with an internet- based job that could be executed from anywhere in the world.
When he moved from Ireland to Spain, his company immediately reduced his salary, even though he was doing exactly the same job.
Some claim that extra regulations make veterinary and medicinal products more expensive in Ireland and that the Irish authorities tie us up in extra red tape.
This may or may not be true but, as a food exporter, we cannot afford to have anything but the highest standards in the distribution and usage of animal medicines. When Ireland, as it does, manufactures nearly one fifth of the world's baby milk powders, we certainly do not want scare stories about antibiotic residues in milk. The tendency in Ireland is to opt for longer withdrawal periods, especially for mastitis products and wormers.
Ireland is right to set the bar high so long as the rules are science based.
On animal health products the evaluation and licensing is carried out by the Irish Medicines Board (IMB). Rule making and the policing are the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture. In both cases the EU Big Brother is looking over their shoulders.
Complex as the rules on the supply and usage of medicines are, they could have been worse had the EU got its way on prescribing products. In the 2007 Animal Remedies legislation the Irish and UK departments managed to keep worm doses out of the list of prescription only medicines.
Over most of the EU, anthelmintics are on prescription only but then again distribution channels differ from country to country. In Denmark, vets are not allowed to market medicines, apart from carrying product for on-spot administration. In Sweden, pharmacies are state owned.Given the complexity of the rules, farmers are vulnerable when facing on-farm inspections. Looking at the websites of the two organisations it struck me that the IMB gives more guidance than the Department of Agriculture on veterinary products and is more up do date in terms of what and where products can be purchased.
I fear that the Department policy is to send in the Special Investigation Unit first and then tell the farmer what's legal and what's not legal.
Generally, only a restricted number of veterinary products can be purchased on line or in another member state. Some products are "Joint Label" by both Ireland and the UK. These can be imported, say, from across the border in Northern Ireland. In contrast, mastitis products are on prescription in Ireland but not in the UK, so they cannot be imported.
The perception is that animal health companies operating in Ireland are working with big margins. Yet the trend is for the bigger companies to downsize their veterinary business.
The lack of new veterinary products coming on stream is of concern to farmers. Until Novartis released Zolvix for sheep last year, we had not seen a new wormer molecule for 20 years. We need the animal health companies to continue to invest in new mechanisms to fight disease and, like it or not, this investment can only come from the margins on their existing sales.
On a genuine new molecule a company will get 15 years of patent protection. The greatest example of this in my memory was MSD Agvet's Ivomec.
However, there are too few of these. Mostly what we get in Ireland are new formulation generics which have eight years' protection on the data and 10 years on sales.
In recent years vets have been handling an increasing share of the retail market for animal medicines. Are the vets being too greedy and taking too big a margin on their sales? Possibly, but farmers need to keep a viable veterinary service in the community.
Retail sales should help in this respect. The signs are the vet income from their other sinecures, TB/Brucellosis testing and factory meat inspection, is set to decline.
Where then do we turn to reduce veterinary medicine costs?
Disease prevention by better management will always be a good idea. Unlike their UK counterparts Irish farmers are not in favour of paying vets for advice on disease prevention.
Some people try to cut costs by trying out quacks and herbal cures but I see that the EU also has a directive on traditional herbal medicinal products. So there goes my plan to commercialise my maternal granny's armoury of herbal and home cures. Even though I am certain of their effectiveness, her ointments will have to remain the preserve of the extended Shirley family.