Thursday, 4 July 2013

Long-term approach to tackling Bovine TB under the spotlight

Debate around bovine TB – specifically, its impact and measures to tackle it – hasn’t been far from the national headlines for some time.

This week saw the publication of Defra's Draft Strategy for "Officially Bovine Tuberculosis-Free" Status for England with the aim of making it bTB free in 25 years.

The statistics speak for themselves. The spread of bovine TB led to the culling of 37,754 cattle in Britain in 2012 – up 10 per cent on 2011. The draft strategy cites that in England alone last year, 28,000 cattle were slaughtered as a result of the disease. The gravity of the situation is clear, which is devastating for the farmers affected. Costs are also highlighted with the cost of a bTB breakdown estimated at £12,000 to a farmer.

Much debate has centred on the pilot badger culls. It remains a highly emotive issue. However, while TB levels remain significant in our wildlife population – notably the proven reservoir of TB in the badger population in some areas – the disastrous effects felt in some areas by farmers are not going to go away unless it is acted upon.

Defra’s draft strategy references the development of new techniques, such as badger and cattle vaccines, and new diagnostic tests that could one day offer new ways of tackling the disease. It does stress, however, that a cattle vaccination programme is some way off.

Its principal aims include preserving the low risk of bTB in the north and east, reversing the spread of the disease at the boundary of High Risk Areas (HRAs) and Low Risk Areas (LRAs), and reducing the level of infection in the High Risk Areas (HRAs) identified in the South West, West Midlands and East Sussex. It highlights the need to use all available tools to do so.

If the examples of successful programmes to tackle bTB cited in the draft strategy are anything to go by, there is cause for optimism long-term. In all cases, the importance of stringent cattle control measures, coupled with tackling the primary wildlife reservoir, have been paramount. Australia achieved official bTB freedom in 1997 after a campaign lasting nearly 30 years. Michigan successfully reduced the average annual number of livestock herds affected to single figures since 2005. In New Zealand, the number of affected herds reduced from 1,700 in the mid 1990s to less than 66 in 2011/12. The proportion of herds affected annually in the Republic of Ireland reduced from 9.6 per cent in 1995 to 7.4 per cent in 2010.

It’s time to move forwards to tackle what has been described as ‘the most pressing animal health problem in the UK’.