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Scaremongering, over-reaction and inflexible bureaucracy?

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Time and time again it has been proven that politicians and decision makers in both the public and private sector do not always get it right, and in some cases even provide inaccurate information and attempt to mislead, often as a result of pressures from influential, vested interest groups. Can we therefore trust the policy makers, consultants and alleged 'experts'‚ in this instance? There is plenty of evidence that reveals we probably should not. History tells us that when it comes to health issues, there are always knee jerk reactions by politicians, often fueled by vested pharmaceutical interests.

For example, back in 1988 Health Minister, Edwina Currie, claimed that most of Britain's egg production was infected with the salmonella bacteria. A British Egg Industry spokesman said at the time that the risk of an egg being infected with salmonella was less than 200 million to one. However, two million chickens were slaughtered. Of course, this had little effect. Whilst an estimated 1 in 750 eggs currently bought by the public is believed to be salmonella infected, people can easily avoid being poisoned by the bacterium by cooking eggs thoroughly and avoiding cross-contamination by washing knives, cutting surfaces and plates.

Another example, between 1995 and 1997 we were told that up to 10 million Britains would die of the terrible disease called BSE. Entire herds of cattle were slaughtered. However, millions of Britons did not die. This was followed by the scare that sheep were carrying the disease too. Then we had bird flu and more recently the swine flu scare.

People can be easily misled because most people have a generally unfounded, morbid fear of disease, fuelled by the popular media's thirst for controversial issues. Have we now got to the stage with bTB where the fight against the disease is affecting people far more than the risks of actually contracting the disease?

Bovine TB is no longer the human health problem it once was, particularly now virtually all milk is pasteurised and meat is cooked (pasteurisation and cooking kills off any TB bacteria). This is a fact that is very rarely mentioned in any public debate, government report or official paper on the subject. Bovine TB may be a 'zoonosis', but figures reveal that, despite the alleged increase in bovine TB in cattle and other animals in some areas of the UK, still under 1% of all confirmed cases of TB in humans is due to M. bovine (the human form), so the spread to humans is extremely rare (refs. 1 & 2). Even the Health Protection Agency says the risks from bovine TB are ‚'negligible', (ref. 3). The dictionary definition of 'negligible'‚ is, 'so small, trifling, unimportant that it may safely be neglected or disregarded.' If this is the case then should we be asking whether the whole TB issue is being blown up out of all proportion? It is interesting to note that during TB testing no-one wears any form of face or skin protection, despite the fact that it is known that bovine TB can be transferred via body fluids and stressed animals can spray saliva at some distance (aerosol). Do any of these people ever contract the disease? How many dairy farmers drink their own milk raw and of these, how many contract bTB?

The government is so confident that bovine TB is not a health problem regarding meat for human consumption that carcasses from certain slaughtered reactors and inconclusive reactors are sold back into the food chain once any obvious lesions have been removed. It is also interesting to note that plenty of meat is also imported into the UK from countries where TB is endemic.

The current UK bovine TB policy and associated media hype is causing unnecessary concern and confusion among the public. It is having a detrimental effect on the farming industry, costing the taxpayer millions and causing severe problems for many farmers and cattle owners. There are also animal welfare issues involved. The environmental impact of such an inflexible and frequent testing regime cannot be ignored. The policy makers and bureaucrats that enforce the current policy have little concern for the health and welfare of those involved and are focussed only on meeting political targets and deadlines. Is the existing policy therefore archaic and flawed? Is it time for a very radical re-think and change of direction?

Paul R. Torgerson and David J. Torgerson believe policy needs to change. They are authors of the report published in November 2009, Public Health and Bovine Tuberculosis: What's All The Fuss About? (ref 4) In their report they propose that bTB control in cattle is irrelevant as a public health policy. They provide evidence to confirm that cattle-to-human transmission is negligible. They also state that aerosol transmission, the only probable route of human acquisition, occurs at inconsequential levels when milk is pasteurised, even when bTB is highly endemic in cattle. Furthermore, they believe there is little evidence for a positive cost benefit in terms of animal health of bTB control. Such evidence is required; otherwise, there is little justification for the large sums of public money spent on bTB control in the UK. This well referenced report, which should be read by everyone who has an interest in bTB, includes sections on the control and re-emergence of tuberculosis in British cattle; transmission of bTB to humans rarely occurs in the UK; bTB is a food borne disease in humans; the economics of bTB; misallocation of resources; a new way forward; concluding remarks.

Those in power must consider if it is the existing eradication policy, not the hypothetical risks of the disease itself, that is having such a dire effect on both the economy and cattle owners.

Ref. 1. United Kingdom 2005 Report on trends and sources of zoonoses. United Kingdom 2005

Ref. 2. In 2007, there were 279 cases of confirmed TB in the South West region and of those two were confirmed as the bovine strain. The current risk posed by bovine TB to human health in the UK is considered negligible. Bovine TB, like any other strain of TB, is treatable with a six-month course of antibiotics which must be completed in order for the treatment to be effective.

Ref. 3. Health Protection Agency Health Protection Agency, Mycobacterium Bovis

Ref. 4. Public health and bovine tuberculosis: what's all the fuss about? Report by P and D Torgerson. download from http://www.zora.uzh.ch/47412/

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