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Acting on the evidence on bovine tb

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SCIENTIFIC reports are often hedged with qualification and cautious in their conclusions. Not so the final report from the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle tb (isg), discussing the results of epidemiological investigations into bovine tuberculosis (see pp 854-856 of this issue). After nearly 10 years' work, and careful consideration of its results, the isg states its conclusions unequivocally. Badger culling, it says, cannot meaningfully contribute to the control of bovine tb in cattle in Britain. However, rigorous application of heightened control measures directly targeting cattle will reverse the year-on-year increase in the incidence of cattle tb and halt the geographical spread of the disease. This is an area that has not been without controversy, but no one could accuse the isg of sitting on the fence.

The Government has still to decide on the next steps but future policy seems likely to be determined by its ‘Strategic framework for the sustainable control of bovine tb’, which was published in 2005 (VR, March 5, 2005, vol 156, pp 293, 294-296). Produced under the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (ahws), this emphasised that costs and responsibility for controlling bovine tb should be shared by the Government and the industry and set out a vision for ‘a partnership based on the ahws so that government and stakeholders can work together to reduce the economic impact of bovine tb and maintain public health protection and animal health and welfare’. The aim would be to slow down and prevent the geographic spread of bovine tb to areas currently free of the disease, and achieve a sustained reduction in disease incidence in cattle in high-incidence areas. On the matter of badger controls, the strategy document made clear that, in considering the evidence, the Government would, ‘as well as assessing the scientific merits of options, need to focus on costs, practicality of delivery, conservation implications and take into account wider public opinion in informing policy decisions on badger or other wildlife controls’.

In a statement to Parliament this week, the Secretary of State at defra, Mr David Miliband, was careful not to commit himself on the badger issue, but emphasised that the Government had always made clear that it would base its approach to tackling tb on all the available evidence. The Government has never been particularly keen on the idea of killing badgers. Presented with the isg's conclusions, it seems highly unlikely that it will opt for badger culling now.

Mr Miliband said it was indisputable that bovine tb was ‘a serious problem for the farming industry’, with disease prevalence having increased sharply over the past decade. The cost to the taxpayer was around £80 million in 2006/07, and farmers whose herds were affected also faced significant financial and personal costs. He noted that the Government had already tightened controls on cattle, increasing the costs to the taxpayer and farmers; the isg had suggested more could be done to tackle transmission between cattle and to ‘root out’ infection in herds, but new cattle measures would increase the cost of the control regime further. The Government would therefore need to work with the farming industry and the veterinary profession to assess the implications of the group's recommendations.

The isg again holds out little prospect for cattle or badger vaccines that might have practical application in the field in the near future, which, apart from improved biosecurity on farms, leaves stricter cattle controls and increased testing and surveillance as the only options. The isg makes specific recommendations in this area, which need to be considered carefully. As always there will be a need to distinguish what might be desirable scientifically and what is practical in the field. As the Secretary of State perceptively remarked, there is also a question of cost and who will pay for it all. The testing regime proposed will require increased resources in terms of manpower; defra's strategic framework document on tb included proposals to introduce lay tb testing, and it seems likely that the Government will want to progress these now that the report has been published.

As the isg remarks, implementing the control measures proposed will also require the full cooperation of farmers, who will need to be convinced of the benefits. Given the situation as it stands, this could prove challenging.

Debate on bovine tb controls and the randomised badger culling trial has been dogged by controversy from the start. With so much at stake, this is understandable, but things have not been helped by the fact that opinion has become entrenched on all sides. Feelings are still running high, and there continues to be a need to separate scientific facts from personal opinion. Now that the isg's report has been published, there is a need for everyone to take a step back from their entrenched positions, take a long cool look at the evidence, and move on constructively from there.

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