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Is the costly and controversial existing bTB policy really about protecting human health and, if not, is there an alternative way forward?

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These are the main questions that politicians and those involved with policy making should be asking, particularly in this current era of financial crisis as public expenditure in the UK on bTB control continues to escalate (it is approaching £100 million annually (Ref. 1). C Glossop, the Welsh Assembly Government's Chief Vet, has admitted publicly that the existing control programme in Wales offers no short term solution and warns that it could take a further twenty years, with no guarantees that TB will ever be eradicated. We are seeing more and more extreme measures being introduced. These even include the costly and publicly controversial culling of wildlife, despite scientific studies which cast doubt on the efficacy and cost effectiveness of such measures. Surprisingly, the existing programme of bTB control/eradication would appear to be supported by the farming industry, despite the negative effects for many farmers. This is ironic as the UK was one of the last European countries to introduce TB testing for cattle and milk pasteurisation because of very firm initial resistance from the farming industry - and this was despite the overwhelming human health evidence which supported the pasteurisation of milk at that time.

The control of bTB is now big business. Is this a classic example of commercial interests manipulating political action?

The estimated cost per herd breakdown is nearly £14,000 (overall in excess of £58 million)(Ref. 2).

In the UK the government cites the following reasons (Ref. 3) for the control of bTB:

1. 'To reduce the economic impact of bTB and maintain public health protection and animal health and welfare.' In reality the risk to human health is negligible. The existing control system itself has significant cattle welfare problems, which may well be worse than the disease itself.

2. 'To ensure minimal risks to public health from exposure to bTB through continuing cattle surveillance and control, slaughterhouse inspections and heat treatment of milk, occupational health controls and monitoring for human cases of bTB.' In reality, now that most milk is pasteurised, there are very few cases of humans contracting bTB in the UK (despite the alleged increase of bTB in cattle and the increased handling of cattle). Meat is deemed fit for human consumption when any bTB lesions have been removed. The Health Protection Agency confirms that the risk to humans from bTB is 'negligible' (so unimportant as to be not worth considering). Cattle to human transmission is still very rare, despite the disease being supposedly endemic now in many areas of the UK and the significantly increased testing regime necessitating more regular handling of 'infected' cattle, therefore confirming that it was only a human health issue prior to pasteurisation. For cattle owners and farm workers there are likely to be far greater health and safety risks from the cattle handling needed to facilitate regular bTB testing, yet this significant risk is ignored. In April 2010 an Irish farmer (from Moyne, North Longford), was injured whilst his cattle were being tested for bTB. He was pronounced dead when he reached hospital. About one third of fatalities on farms involve livestock.

Whilst not specifically mentioned in the above reasons, cattle exports and maintaining the UK's bTB free status is another major justification put forward for the existing policy. However, the cost of the current programme is in excess of the value of live exports of cattle from the UK (Ref. 4) and only 1.4% (Ref. 5) of the UK cattle population are exported each year.

It is somewhat surprising to learn that, in view of the huge amounts of public money involved, very few cost benefit analysis studies have been undertaken. There are also few cost benefit analyses on the effects of bTB on animal health and production and none in the UK. A study in Spain revealed that bTB control is not economically efficient (Ref. 6). In the UK the couple of cost benefit analysis studies undertaken have been limited to measures for reducing bTB in the badger population, and such studies have indicated such measures are poor value for money.

In the report by Paul R and David J Torgerson (Ref. 7) the authors argue that, apart from milk pasteurisation, the existing control measures do not make economic sense and are therefore a a clear example of misallocation of public resources. Their report is a vital read for policy makers. They conclude that the UK's current bTB elimination programme is extremely inefficient in terms of public health protection. They suggest too that an economic evaluation of the costs in animal health to the livestock industry, that strips out the costs of the test and cull policy, is required. If there is negative benefit the UK government should seek degregation from EU laws that compel member states to draw up plans for the elimination of bTB. This would enable the UK to abandon attempts to eliminate the disease from the UK cattle herd and to develop alternative measures for animal health protection, eg vaccination.

In the Torgerson report (Ref. 7) they consider the implications of abandoning the existing bTB control programme. The disease would increase in the national herd (which, they point out, is actually happening anyway, despite the costly control attempts of the last few decades). A self funded control programme could continue to exist for some cattle, eg animals used for milk production, or those which will be exported. Disease security on individual farms could be implemented. The test and cull policy would cease as a compulsory test for all cattle and the BCG vaccine could be introduced as an interim measure whilst better vaccines are being developed. Whilst BCG does not offer complete protection, with the correct doses, evidence suggests it can reduce transmission, particularly if given before calves have been exposed to bTB (Ref. 8).

Paul and David Torgerson conclude (Ref. 7) that in the light of the evidence presented in their report, they propose that the continuing bTB programme in the UK is economically unacceptable as a public health intervention. They are concerned regarding the lack of data with regard to the positive economic effects to animal health, given that the main costs are implementation expenditure. Thus, they believe, the most effective way of reducing the economic impact of bTB is to stop the bTB control programme in its present form. They believe that a shift away from prevention in cattle, whilst continuing with the regulation of milk and meat, should provide adequate public health protection at relatively modest costs.

Ref. 1. DEFRA statsistics

Ref. 2. 'A cost-benefit analysis of culling badgers to control bovine tuberculosis', GC Smith, 2007.

Ref. 3 'Government Strategic Framework for the Sustainable Control of Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) in Britain', DEFRA 2006

Ref. 4 'Benefits of stemming bovine TB need to be demonstrated', PR and DJ Torgerson, 2009

Ref. 5 'The Cattle Book 2007. Descriptive Statistics of Cattle Numbers in Great Britain on 1 June 2007, DEFRA Ref. 6 'Economic evaluation of bovine brucellosis and tuberculosis eradication programmes in a mountain area in Spain.' A Bermues et al, 1997

Ref. 7 'Public health and bovine tuberculosis: what's all the fuss about?', Nov 2009 download from http://www.zora.uzh.ch/47412/

Ref. 8 'A Review of M. bovis BCG protection against TB in cattle and other animal species." FM Susan et al, 2003

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