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Time for a decision on TB

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ONCE again attention is likely to focus on badgers. However, the latest report on bovine tb from the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (efracom) deals with much more besides. The report,* which was published on Wednesday this week, describes the results of the committee's inquiry into the report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle tb (isg), which was published last summer and concluded among other things that, while badgers were clearly a source of bovine tb, culling them could not meaningfully contribute to the control of bovine tb in cattle in Britain (see VR, June 23, 2007, vol 160, pp 854-856). It has been awaited eagerly, not least because the Government has indicated that it has been waiting for the efracom's report before deciding how to act on the isg's findings. Now that the report has been published, it cannot put off a decision for much longer.

Few would disagree with the efracom's conclusions that the Government's current method of controlling cattle tb, involving surveillance, testing and slaughter, is not working effectively, that there is no simple solution to controlling tb and that the Government should adopt a multifaceted approach. This, it suggests, should include: more frequent testing of cattle, with more frequent and targeted combined use of the tuberculin skin test and the interferon-γ test; evaluation of postmovement cattle testing; greater communication with farmers on the benefits of biosecurity; deployment of badger and cattle vaccines when they become available; and continued work on the epidemiology of the disease.

Its recommendation that, if certain conditions can be met, the measures should also include badger culling will inevitably be more controversial, although it is likely to be welcomed by farmers and also by the bva, which has argued for some time that the problem of tb in cattle cannot properly be addressed without also addressing the problem in wildlife. That said, the conditions set out in the efracom's report are fairly stringent, and it is perhaps debatable whether in practical terms they could actually be met. Specifically, the efracom suggests that culling should be sanctioned only if it can be coordinated and done competently and efficiently over a large area (265 km2 or more). It further suggests that culling would have to be sustained for at least four years and carried out in areas with well defined boundaries. These recommendations are based on ‘points of agreement’ on the efficacy of badger culling between the isg and Sir David King, the Government's former chief scientist, who commented on the isg's findings last October and drew some markedly different conclusions (see VR, October 27, 2007, vol 161, p 574). The efracom's report sheds light on the areas of disagreement between the isg and the chief scientist, and helps clarify how the differences of opinion arose.

The Government is not obliged to follow the efracom's recommendations, although it does have to reply to its report within 60 days. Speaking at the National Farmers' Union's centenary conference in London last week, before the report was published, the Secretary of State at defra, Mr Hilary Benn, said that he fully intended to make a decision on what the Government, together with the farming industry, should do about bovine tb. At the time of writing it is not clear what that decision will be, although a clue to the Secretary of State's intentions might be obtained from his subsequent statement that it would be based on four things: ‘what the science tells us, what impact the proposed measures would have on the disease, how practical is the solution and what is its public acceptability’.

Controls on cattle will have to be strengthened even if badger culling is allowed and, in its report, the efracom expresses concern that, six months after the isg's report was published, defra has not yet initiated a cost-benefit analysis of the cattle-based control options recommended by the isg. It makes some useful observations on biosecurity, noting, among other things, that husbandry advice delivered through leaflets and defra's website is not getting through to farmers and that ‘a more proactive approach using vets based in the local communities’ could be more effective. It sees vaccination as a future means of meeting the long-term goal of eradicating bovine tb, and argues that research on vaccines must continue, along with research on effective biosecurity measures and on the mechanisms by which the disease is transmitted.

On the question of funding, the committee argues that the measures proposed will require increased financial support from defra, but argues that a ‘spend to save’ policy is necessary if the Government wants to avoid the ever-increasing expenditure forecast for future years. It says that ministerial assertions, driven by defra's budgetary control problems, that the budget for cattle tb will be reduced are ‘unrealistic’, and that the department has a continuing responsibility to seek an end to the incidence of the disease. It says that defra is justified in making a case for more funds from the Treasury, but that, in doing so, it will once and for all have to commit itself to a strategy with clear goals against which progress can be measured.

How much ice that recommendation will cut with the Treasury or, indeed, in defra itself, remains to be seen. However, no one could disagree with the efracom's comment that ‘The impact of the disease has reached a stage where further procrastination is unacceptable’ — and it is certainly time that the goals were agreed.

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