One of my favourite sources of information about bovine tuberculosis (bTB, caused by Mycobacterium bovis) is bovinetb.co.uk. Its unnamed author is ‘looking for the reform of a costly and misguided system.’
When I talk to farmers, I often hear support for anything that might be supposed to help control bTB. That view is based on knowledge of how terrible is the existing policy of slaughtering cattle (Bos primigenius) which react to the ‘skin test’ (the single intradermal comparative cervical tuberculin (SICCT) test). Indeed it’s terrible for farmers. But is it the only way? Not everybody thinks so.
Here’s what bovinetb.co.uk says to the question, ‘Is the existing bovine TB eradication policy really working?’
‘Is the existing costly and disruptive programme that aims to eradicate bTB in the UK good value for money and is it really working? NO. Is the existing policy now having more of an adverse impact on human and cattle welfare than the risks from the disease it is aiming to control/eradicate? YES. Over the last few years there have been at least two human deaths – not from bovine TB but as a result of the skin test. In April 2010 an Irish farmer died and in January 2013 a Carmarthenshire [South Wales] farmer died. Many farmers and vets are injured during the testing process. Cattle too are frequently injured or killed. Would it be more sensible instead to have a control policy, rather than one that aims for the impossible – eradication? YES
‘Since the 1950’s, when the testing of cattle for [bTB] in the UK became compulsory following its initial introduction on a voluntary basis in the 1930’s, many millions of pounds have been spent on trying to eradicate the disease using an imperfect skin test. However, despite some 60 years of testing and all this expenditure, and many thousands of slaughtered cattle, little progress has been made, and the financial costs continue to escalate year on year. Perhaps more importantly, the government has done little to determine the true costs of the existing testing policy; the consequences of the enormous pressures on cattle and alpaca [(Vicugna pacos)] owners; business failures as a result of herd breakdowns, health and safety risks from cattle handling and the actual consequences of culling indigenous wildlife species … the existing policy is a bureaucratic nightmare. It is starting too to involve an even greater number of people and animals as legislation is being brought in to test/cull wildlife and other domestic animals.
‘What is clear is that after 60 years of using the same old test (which is not reliable enough to be anything other than a herd test), culling thousands of cattle, and millions of pounds of public expenditure spent on compensation payments, research etc, the existing eradication (elimination!) policy is impossible to achieve and sustain whilst the bacteria that causes bovine TB [in fact a single bacterium, M. bovis] is so endemic around the world and globalisation continues to increase. As this website clearly reveals, the current insistence on striving for eradication is undoubtedly causing more suffering to farmers and their animals than the risks of the actual disease itself. The Government persistently fails to adequately justify the need for such an expensive and draconian policy, either on the grounds of human or animal health or even on economic grounds. As the skin test is not used as a herd test in the UK it will be impossible to eradicate the disease and we should be learning, instead, to live with it. Countries that have used the skin test as a herd test, destroy the whole herd if any animals fail. This has enabled countries to maintain the coveted bTB free status. However, most people would probably agree that this is not an appropriate option for the UK. Instead we should be vaccinating cattle.
‘Are too many people now being adversely affected by the current policy? With the recent decision by WAG [Welsh Assembly Government] to bring in compulsory testing for other domestic animals, an even greater number of people will be affected. It would seem that the main reason for trying to eradicate bTB is so the UK can maintain its ‘TB free status’, thereby protecting the agricultural industry’s dwindling cattle exports. Is it now time for a radical re-think? Bovine TB appears to be yet another area that has become ‘big business’. Is it now being driven by vested interests?
‘The current pre-occupation with bTB may sound particularly surprising when you consider that the risk to humans these days from bovine TB is negligible – pasteurisation and cooking destroys any TB bacteria in milk and meat. In fact the risk to humans is so minimal that even the unaffected parts of carcasses of cattle slaughtered as TB reactors and found to have TB lesions are sold back into the food chain for human consumption.
‘Those countries which claim to have eradicated bovine TB using the skin test have achieved this by using very stringent measures, such as complete depopulation of herds, delays on re-stocking and even the removal and sterilization of soil! It is interesting to note that no country with so called wildlife reservoirs, has been able to achieve this coveted status to date.
‘Despite the massive costs over the last few decades, the exact details of the transmission and epidemiology of bovine TB are still not known with complete certainty and there are a number of important, unanswered questions which are fundamental in justifying the existing test and cull policy. Have we got to the stage when the huge costs and negative effects on cattle owners as a result of the existing policy outweigh any perceived benefits of the existing policy and should there be a radical re-think on the whole issue? Perhaps lessons can be learned from countries such as Ethiopia, where they just cannot afford to persistently test and kill cattle needlessly. Neither can they afford to spend millions of pounds on investigating so-called wildlife reservoirs. Instead, they are opting for control and are trialling vaccination of cattle. The results are encouraging, as have been previous cattle vaccination trials in other areas.’