20 Oct 2009, 7:56 PM
Why do we need an eradication policy?
The government's primary objectives (Ref. 1), which form the basis of the existing bovine TB (bTB) eradication policy, are:
1. To protect public health.
2. To prevent bovine TB spreading to other animals.
3. To make sure that cattle do not suffer because of bTB.
There are many fundamental questions associated with each, plus related questions, as set out below. If these cannot be adequately answered then surely the policy is suspect and a radical re-think is needed?
1. To protect public health
Is bovine TB really the human health problem that it once was (particularly now most milk is pasteurized)(Ref. 2) (many farmers even drink their own milk raw and still bovine TB is rare) and is the existing costly and bureaucratic system justified? If it spreads so easily, as is claimed, why do those who are in regular contact with all these supposedly ‘infected’ cattle (and badgers) very rarely contract the disease, particularly with such regular testing and cattle handling? Should the taxpayer be expected to massively subsidize the existing bTB programme if it is not really a significant public health risk? Is the health of too many people now being adversely affected by the current policy itself? Do the disadvantages and negative effects on the health of farmers and other cattle owners outweigh any perceived benefits that may be derived from trying to eradicate bTB in cattle? What about the health and safety issues of cattle handling (Ref. 6) from the significantly increased testing regimes? What about the indirect public health costs of the existing testing policy (testing fatigue, business failures, the health and well being of herd-owners (Ref. 9) involved in herd breakdowns)? How much hardship is the current inflexible and zero tolerance eradication programme, with its unreasonable, risky and frequent testing regime, causing cattle owners? Why all this fuss about bovine TB when there is not the same concern given to Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the human form, which is on the increase (ref 10)? Humans are not being tested and culled; those affected are not even segregated. We reiterate once again, bovine TB is no longer considered the human health risk (ref 2) it once was now that virtually all milk is heat-treated and it represents less than 1% of human cases of TB.
2. To prevent bTB spreading to other animals
The skin test often fails to detect animals with lesions so if such animals are capable of spreading the disease (and there is still uncertainty about how bTB is spread), will these animals always pose a risk to other animals, thereby making eradication an impossible goal? Regardless of whether or not the policy is really necessary, will the current obsession with eradication ever work using such an unreliable skin (and blood) test, which forms the basis of the eradication programme? Those countries (without significant wildlife reservoirs) that claim to have eradicated the disease using the skin test (which is not accurate enough to be anything other than a herd test) have only done so by the complete depopulation of all herds where any animal reacts to the test and re-stocking is then delayed (not done in the UK), with even more stringent measures in some areas.
If preventing the spread of bTB is considered so important why are farmers allowed to re-stock so soon after a herd breakdown? Why are farmers still permitted to mix the raw milk from reactors with slurry for spreading on the land, bearing in mind that the bacteria that causes bTB can lie dormant in the soil for many months - and presumably could be picked up by badgers and other wildlife foraging in such mixtures?
3. To make sure that cattle do not suffer because of bovine TB
How many cattle are being slaughtered needlessly? What are the welfare implications for cattle on farms experiencing housing problems as a result of herd breakdowns and subsequent movement restrictions? Animals that have passed the skin test but on routine slaughter have been found to have lesions, have been healthy whilst alive so is the disease really as bad as is being claimed? How much does the foetus (often well developed) suffer following the death of a mother that is shot after failing the test? How humane are the slaughter procedures for such animals that cannot be transported and are therefore shot on the farm, often in front of the distraught owners (ref 12)? Are animals housed in intensive TB units suffering? Should more effort instead be put into improving welfare standards of cattle, particularly now herd sizes have increased significantly and disease is often the result of nutritional deficiencies and living standards? Why has more research not been undertaken into these areas? Clinical symptoms are rare and many cattle having lesions at post mortem are claimed to have been healthy, despite failing the test, so is such a draconian eradication policy really necessary? Why is the health of livestock being taken away from the farmers who are most experienced in their care and being passed instead to civil servants and those with vested financial interests?
OTHER QUESTIONS THAT NEED ADDRESSING
WHAT ABOUT 'bTB FREE' STATUS AND EXPORTS/IMPORTS?
Is the existing eradication policy now more about retaining the coveted 'bTB free' status and protecting the UK's dwindling export market (ref 11), than it is about human and animal health? Has it become increasingly concerned more with meeting political targets and deadlines in order to comply with European Union than about human and animal health? What is the actual value of the market regarding UK beef and milk exports, and the value of breeding stock exports and how does this compare to the public investment of trying to eradicate bTB? What are the true implications of losing TB free status for the agricultural industry, UK economy and taxpayer? Even areas that are classed as 'bTB free' experience cases with surprising regularity, so is it really possible to eradicate this disease cost effectively bearing in mind that, globally, most of the human population are in areas where bovine TB is either only partially controlled or not controlled at all? Can it really be kept out permanently using the same old test and cull programme, which has been in use for over 50 years, and failed? How much meat and dairy products come into the UK from countries where there are no controls for bTB and where the disease is endemic?
HOW RELIABLE IS THE EXISTING TESTING SYSTEM?
Are there less costly and easier ways of keeping bTB under control, such a a vaccination programme for cattle? As the bTB status of an area is solely based on the results of the intra-dermal tuberculin (skin) test (currently the only approved test under EU regulations), shouldn't this test be more accurate? How reliable are the field trials on which the false positive and false negative rates are based? Why are there so many reactors and inconclusive reactors that are healthy and show no symptoms when alive, no lesions on postmortem and even follow-up tissue cultures are negative? If such large percentages have no actual evidence of bovine TB, then how can it be confirmed that these animals really are a risk and are infectious? The organisms can lie dormant within a host’s body for its lifetime without causing progressive disease or infection (Ref. 3) so does the presence of any TB lesions in carcasses really prove active infection and a risk of spreading bovine TB? There are many incidents of lesions on carcasses found during routine slaughter, with the animal testing clear and being healthy, with no clinical signs of disease, so is bTB really an animal welfare issue? If carcasses show no evidence of disease then how can the compensation payments be justified? Is it ethical to claim that the disease is rife if this is based solely on an imperfect test? Is it right to claim that cattle found to have TB lesions are likely to have been infectious, particularly as there is still uncertainty regarding how infection is spread? Why is the current emphasis on getting as many reactors and inconclusive reactors identified and slaughtered at public expense, with the subsequent loss of important bloodlines, valuable and highly prized animals? Where is the scientific back up evidence to justify the publicly quoted ‘1 in 1,000 chance that a non-infected animal will be wrongly classified as a reactor’ and how reliable is this assumption? Can Defra provide the evidence that the test has been evaluated in properly designed field trials? Why do so many reactors and inconclusive reactors show evidence of liver fluke? Could the presence of liver fluke cause a positive or inconclusive reaction to the skin test (Ref. 4) and why are there so few studies on this? Has the specificity and sensitivity of a diagnostic test been determined in naturally sensitized M bovis-infected cattle and cattle in M bovis-free herds in the geographical region in which the test will be used (Ref. 5)? Has this been done for the different regions of the UK? How many of the cattle slaughtered would have developed a resistance to the disease as a result of being exposed to bacteria and could such resistance have been passed on to future offspring, thereby encouraging natural immunity in a herd? Why is there not more research into this? Are we currently killing off many cattle that have actually become immune to the disease naturally - a similar immunity to that which a vaccine would give? Are we killing cattle that have been exposed to other bacteria? It is known that Johnes’ disease (also caused by Mycobacteria) can cause a positive reaction to the skin test (Ref.13). As the skin test is not perfect should this be used as the sole indicator regarding the bovine TB status of an area? If the risk of TB infection is much less than currently claimed by officials, then could there be far more flexibility regarding testing and slaughter, with consequentially significant cost savings and other benefits to the taxpayer, farming community and other cattle owners? Why is there still no alternative test to the unreliable, time consuming and risky skin test (Ref. 6), particularly as cattle handling poses real health and safety risks for farmers and the skin test involves having to handle cattle on two occasions for each test. Why are alternative, easier, tests still not available? What happened to the ‘electric nose’, PCR and other (Ref. 7) tests? Why, after some 50 years of bTB testing and significant public investment, is there still no alternative, quicker, easier, safer and more reliable test? Why is there still no vaccination programme available for cattle available and approved by the EU?
IS THERE CURRENTLY A HOLISTIC APPROACH?
Should there be increasing public investment in trying to achieve the impossible – eradication of bTB – without very valid reasons, particularly when funding is being drastically cut from so many other areas in these times of financial restraint and huge public debt? How is the government going to ensure a holistic approach in these rapidly changing times when we have a financial crisis, recession, spiraling debt, climate change, food shortages and many other issues to contend with? How does the existing bovine TB policy fit in with other government policies and programmes, particularly where cattle are being recommended for conservation grazing and to encourage habitat diversity?
WHAT ABOUT THE BADGER LINK?
Is the badger a scapegoat? What if badger culling is not the answer (the science remains inconclusive and reports suggest such culling is poor value for money), what species will be the next target? There is currently little active surveillance in the UK of bTB in other mammals, so why has only the badger being targeted? Is there too much emphasis and are there too many resources being channelled into the cattle/badger link, at the expense of finding a reasonable, cost effective and long-term, lasting solution for farmers? What about other animals, like camelids (currently not subject to routine, compulsory testing or movement restrictions), where we are seeing more disease reported?
IS THE POLICY REALLY WORKING, IS IT COST EFFECTIVE AND IS IT A GOOD USE OF PUBLIC MONEY?
Has it become such big business that there are too many vested interests pushing for the policy to continue in its continued form regardless of its impact on others? Is the existing costly and disruptive programme to eradicate bTB in the UK good value for money and is it really working? Why are there no cost benefit analyses for the existing programme? Can the ever-increasing costs of the bovine TB programme be justified? Is the existing policy now having more of an adverse impact on farmers and their cattle than the risks from the disease the policy is aiming to control/eradicate? We are told we are still many years away from eradication (and there is much doubt this is really achievable) so, for the sake of the farmers, animals and the public purse, isn’t it about time the failures of the existing policy are admitted and a different approach taken – a control policy based on cattle vaccination?
IS THE POLICY SERIOUSLY IMPINGING ON CIVIL LIBERTIES? (Ref. 8)
HAVE WE NOW GOT TO THE STAGE WHERE THE INCREASING, UNSUSTAINABLE COSTS AND NEGATIVE EFFECTS ON CATTLE OWNERS AND THEIR ANIMALS, AS A RESULT OF THE EXISTING PROGRAMME OF ERADICATION, OUTWEIGH ANY BENEFITS? IS IT NOW TIME FOR A RADICAL RE-THINK?
Interestingly DEFRA reveals, in the latest consultation documents, that a vaccination for cattle will be available in 2012 (with a DIVA test). The BCG vaccine is not perfect – but then neither is the existing skin (or blood) test! Bearing in mind the average lifespan of most cattle, vaccination could be used as a successful control, rather than eradication, policy. However, the EU procedures will not be completed until 2015! This is not good enough and derogation should be sought so a vaccination programme can be started for cattle as a matter of urgency (already successful in Ethiopia where they cannot afford to keep culling cattle needlessly). Such a policy will be better for farmers; cheaper for the public and wildlife reservoirs may well no longer be a problem either!
Ref. 1 DEFRA publications: 'Dealing with TB in Your Herd; Bovine tuberculosis: What is it? Why do we test for it? How do we detect it?' http://www.defra.gov.uk/animalhealth/managing-disease/bTb/pdf/1_Bovine_TB.pdf and 'Bovine TB Testing and Controls',
Ref. 2 Report by Paul R and David J Torgerson, 'Public Health and bovine tuberculosis: what's all the fuss about?' The authors propose that the continuing bTB programme in the UK is economically unacceptable as a public health intervention. Furthermore, they believe data is lacking with regards to the positive economic effects to animal health. There should be a shift away from prevention in cattle, whilst continuing with the regulation of milk and meat. This should provide adequate public health protection at relatively modest costs. Download from http://www.zora.uzh.ch/47412/
Ref. 3. House of Commons Library ResearchPaper 98/63 on ‘Bovine Tuberculosis’ 1 June 1998 http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp98/rp98-063.pdf
Ref. 4 'Bovine tuberculosis and Fasciola hepatica infection' by JM Brougham, P Durr, R Clifton-Hadley, A Colloff, T Goodchild, R Sayers, S Williamson and S H Downs
Ref. 5. The specificity and sensitivity of a diagnostic test should be determined in naturally sensitized M bovis-infected cattle and cattle in M bovis-free herds in the geographical region in which the test will be used. Has this been done for the different regions of the UK? This is important because non-specific sensitization caused by other organisms that share antigenic determinants may vary for different regions and countries. For example, it is possible that cattle not infected with M bovis will respond to M bovis (ie. will be revealed as reactors or inconclusive reactors) because of exposure to other mycobacteria.
Ref. 6 http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2010/0428/1224269222234.html
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. Constant testing has significant health and safety risks that would not be tolerated in any other sector. There are several government reports that highlight the risks of handling cattle, including the report ‘Handling Beef Cattle; identifying research needs and knowledge transfer opportunities to improve safety and animal welfare’ by S Turner, A Lawrence and B Lowman compiled for the Scottish Executive. http://www.hse.gov.uk/agriculture/cattlehandling.htm
See also http://www.hse.gov.uk/agriculture/pdf/cattlehandling.pdf
Ref. 7 There is a test that uses a serum sample which allegedly identified, in experiments, infected animals as early as 3 weeks after infection with M. bovis. Defra was testing this system at a cost of £450,000 and stated that the e-nose together with SIFT-MS (selective ion flow tube mass pectrometry) would offer improvements in terms of diagnostic accuracy in both cattle and badgers and could have a significant impact on the control of bovine T. DEFRA funded research too into a diagnostic test to enhance the prospect of the control of bovine TB in cattle by vaccination. This was claimed to be a test that could distinguish cattle that have been vaccinated against bTB from those that had been infected by the Mycobacterium bovis. www.iah.bbsrc.ac.uk/press_release/2007/JHope_Nov07.htm
Ref. 8 Civil liberties are the basic rights and freedoms that protect an individual. They prevent the state from abusing power or intruding in citizens’ lives unnecessarily. Legislation can help keep people safe, but excessive legislation can erode civil liberties. Recent evidence reveals civil liberties are under threat from recently introduced legislation giving government powers of entry to any land to undertake culling.
Ref. 9 A number of case studies demonstrate the hardships caused by the existing policy. http://www.bovinetb.co.uk/articles.php?category_id=32
Ref 10 Health Protection Agency report, ‘Tuberculosis in the UK: Annual report on tuberculosis surveillance in the UK 2010’. The trend of a gradual rise in the number of tuberculosis cases observed over the last 20 years continued in 2009, with a 4.2% rise giving an overall rate of 15 cases per 100,000 population in the UK. A total of 9,040 cases of tuberculosis were reported in 2009 with the majority of disease concentrated in urban centres. All 19 primary care organisations with a rate of 40 per 100,000 or more were in major urban areas. London accounts for 38% of cases, with a rate of 44.4 per 100,000.
Ref 11 Defra figures:
In 2006 89,567 cattle were exported with a value of £3,332,000
In 2007 85,487 cattle were exported with a value of £2,548,1457
In 2008 51.809 cattle were exported with a value of £1,457,000
In 2009 11.050 cattle were exported with a value of £152,000
Ref 12 http://www.farmersguardian.com/home/livestock/livestock-news/farmers-urged-to-back-cull-plans-as-23-cattle-slaughtered/36022.article Report from farmer who lost several in calf cattle to TB recently; “But due to the fact the cows were very heavy in calf, it was decided an on-farm slaughter would take place and 13 cows, four yearlings and six two and three-month-old calves were shot in the pen. The whole procedure was so traumatic. We feel that not enough emphasis is given to the stress placed upon farmers at times like this and, more particularly, the stressful way in which the animals had to be slaughtered. After the first one was killed there was obviously a great deal of panic among the remaining cattle. Some of the cows were very heavy in calf and, in fact, one of them had calved the previous night.
Ref 13 BOVINE TB ADVISORY GROUP - Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - April 2009 BOVINE TB – THE FACTS