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A Blueprint for Eradicating Bovine TB in England

21 April 2009

Bovine Tuberculosis is a serious infectious disease, incurring huge costs on both the individuals affected, and on the governments attempting to control it. Adam Anson, reporting for TheCattleSite, summarises the latest UK plan which attempts to lay out a blueprint for its eradication.

Over the course of the year 2008, bovine tuberculosis infected over 500 new herds in the UK and led to the slaughter of over four and a half thousand cattle. Despite of continuous prevention strategies, this figure presents a sharp increase from the year before. The economic cost of the disease has also soared in recent years, from £7.3 million in the year 1998/9 to £32.6 million in 2007/08.

Struggling to get to grips with the ever-worsening effects of the disease, the TB Advisory Group published a final report on the possibility of complete eradication within the UK.

Released April 8 2009, the report - Bovine Tuberculosis in England: Towards Eradication - April 2009 - is a conclusion of almost three years work in which the Group says it played a key role in obtaining stakeholder buy-in to TB control policies, independently challenged Government and considered issues of concern to stakeholders whilst advising on practical implementation of control policies.

In the Direction of a Wind of Change

The UK recently saw the proposed legislation of a badger cull fail on the grounds of animal welfare. This has left many in the role of TB control feeling deflated and at a loss for ideas of where to turn next .

The report emphasises the need to reinstate a sense of urgency, ensuring sufficient resources are available for this to become possible. It also makes it clear that there is 'no magic bullet' for eventual control and eradication. All attempts must be made to minimise the disease transmission risk and a consistent risk reduction approach must be used for all breakdowns.

According to the report, a "holistic multifaceted approach" is needed that uses a combination of control measures. For the TB Advisory Group's plan of action to succeed they say that substantial extra costs must be incurred and a realistic time frame between 10 and 20 years must be allowed for any hope of complete eradication.

The plan must also take into account TB existing in wildlife reservoirs. The report says that the plan will need to "stop the spread of Bovine TB from existing endemic areas", and also "Stamp out the disease where it occurs in new areas."

Another area that the reports highlights is to dispel the myths and misconceptions that many farmers have over the nature of the disease. "Who communicates this message is paramount and veterinary endorsement is key", says the report. Similarly the importance of this goal can not be lost due to set backs and promises of an easier future. A badger vaccine will not provide an instant cure, says the report. It will be used merely as part of the multifaceted approach.

Most importantly, clear leadership from both the government and the industry needs to materialise.

Examining Key Issues and Details

The body of the Advisory Groups proposal was laid out in a set of key issues, which were aimed at controlling the current TB situation. Due to the rapid potential spread of the disease, control of cattle movement was of high importance, but as the industry relies on a considerable amount of trade to function, the report also emphasised that careful consideration must be used to evaluate the extent of these measures.

Current movement schemes follow control measures designed to prevent the spread of Foot and Mouth Disease, but the advisory group deemed these to be ineffective against Bovine TB. According to the report, a new specific set of measures must be implemented to help properly safeguard herds against infection.

Testing programmes were another key issue that fell under the group's scrutiny. They were "not convinced" of the clarity on the government's TB policy, whether it aimed to control, or eradicate the disease. According to the report, the initial objective must be to control the disease. Clearer objectives have been recommended with possible targets to underpin levels of progress.

The advisory group also discussed the conflicting opinions on pre-movement and post-movement testing. The group says that it supported the pre-movement testing policy as a means of reducing the risk of TB spread, but felt that more time was needed to see the epidemiological impacts of the measure. However, the group also acknowledged that a greater risk of wider disease spread is associated with cattle movements. Therefore the group decided that post-movement testing was more relevant for animals moving on to farms with breeding herds because of the "potentially greater consequences of introduction of infection into such herds."

As part of its recommendations on testing the group suggested that Defra should amend its current policy to fully comply with a council directive which states that all standard inconclusive reactors to the skin test must be slaughtered.

The directive also says that Member States may employ the gamma interferon blood test alongside the skin test to enhance the sensitivity of the diagnostic regime. The advisory group welcomed this suggestion and said that the test should be made more widely available, despite of extra costs plus legal and logistical issues.

Despite of the imposed and upheld ban on badger culls, the report still identifies the importance of badger populations to the plan. In the absence of culling, the report recommends tightened biosecurity measures, whilst future vaccination will play a key role in disease control and even possible eradication. It is currently believed that a licensed injectable badger vaccine will become available in 2010, so it is important that those involved in the issue start to develop a plan for successful deployment. The report also notes the importance of other possible wildlife reservoirs and advises continued research into these areas.

Husbandry was another issue that the group felt vital for good biosecurity. The tailoring of advice to specific TB outbreaks was deemed to be of great importance, whilst education on basic control measures and even the associated terminology was recommended. For instance the report believed there was widespread misunderstanding of the word biosecurity, as a result the group have advocated the use of the phrase "disease risk reduction measures" in place of it.

The report identified many misunderstandings about Bovine TB and recommended that veterinarians should make a greater effort to to inform livestock keepers of the situation. "Whilst this would improve future communications there is a need to address current shortfalls in knowledge and general; misunderstandings, and some changes in terminology could be beneficial" .

As part of these measures the group stressed the importance of ensuring that feed stores, cattle housing and feeding areas are made out of bounds to wildlife - especially badgers - as far as practicable. Having isolation units was also considered to be good practice.

On the implementation of current controls the report acknowledged the current review of the testing process and welcomed the tightening of audit process and the increased control. The group has also heard from farmers and veterinarians of the dangers in undertaking TB testing and accepted the requirement for proper handling facilities for safety.

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.
- Find out more information on Bovine Tuberculosis by clicking here.

April 2009

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