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Looking for leadership on TB

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THE Bovine TB Advisory Group was set up by Defra in 2006 and was tasked, in the group’s own words, ‘with considering the role of bovine TB and cattle in terms of developing control policies in England while the Government decided what its policy should be on badger culling’. In July last year the Secretary of State at Defra, Hilary Benn, finally made clear that the Government would not be allowing badgers to be culled to control TB in cattle in England and would instead be investing in vaccine research (see VR, July 12, 2008, vol 163, p 34). Mr Benn’s announcement marked the beginning of the end for the TB Advisory Group, which has since been superseded by the more positively named TB Eradication Group. This is not to say that the advisory group did not fulfil a useful purpose, as evidenced by its final report which has just been published by Defra and makes no fewer than 36 recommendations.

In his foreword, the group’s chairman, Peter Jinman, remarks, ‘A clear theme throughout the group’s deliberations was the pressing need for government to clarify its strategic goal for bovine TB and inject a necessary sense of urgency’. The need to instil a sense of urgency is reiterated in the report, which also draws attention to the need to ensure that ‘sufficient resources, both physical and financial, are available to tackle the disease efficiently and effectively’. At the same time, it points out that there is no ‘magic bullet’ for the control and eventual eradication of bovine TB, which will inevitably be a costly and long-term process. Emphasising the need to employ a range of control measures, it remarks, ‘It is easy to lose sight of the importance of a committed multifaceted approach for tackling this disease when faced with the promise of new developments, eg, badger vaccines. Although the latter provide the only viable option for dealing with the wildlife reservoir within the policy framework Government has currently set, they can only ever form part of a raft of measures necessary to control and eventually eradicate this disease’. It draws attention to the need for ‘basic facts’ about TB to be clearly understood by the farming community, arguing that veterinary practitioners have a key role in communication. An appendix to the report includes a factsheet on bovine TB, which could be helpful in a field in which a better appreciation of the facts could prevent much fruitless argument.

While noting that control of the disease in cattle might eventually be accomplished by cattle measures alone, albeit at considerable cost, the report states that there are not enough additional practical cattle controls to eradicate TB in the absence of measures to address infection in the wildlife reservoir. It points out that reducing the risk of transmission from the wildlife vector to cattle does not solely mean the culling of badgers, but encompasses all practical measures to break the cycle of transmission. It draws attention to the work being done to develop a TB eradication programme in Wales, and expresses concern that the high levels of TB on the English side of the border should not be allowed to detract from implementation of the Welsh plans.

Recommendations in the report cover a range of issues, including testing regimes and how efficiently current controls are implemented, cattle movements and ‘risk-based trading’, pre- and post-movement testing, diagnostic tests and on-farm biosecurity. Among other things, it recommends that TB testing should be conducted in a geographically and temporally coordinated way, and in a manner that is epidemiologically relevant. It also suggests that better use could be made of the information in Animal Health offices and recommends that Animal Health should involve private vets as well as its veterinary officers in developing disease reduction plans appropriate to individual farms.

Overall, the report gives the impression that more could and should be done to tackle bovine TB. At the same time, it notes that many of those involved in tackling TB have become ‘disheartened’, and that ‘testing fatigue’ is a serious issue in areas where the disease is endemic and where continuous testing has resulted in little or no progress. For such reasons, it argues, ‘clear leadership, both government and industry, needs to be demonstrated’ and ‘renewed vigour’ injected into control efforts. It remains to be seen which approach will be more successful. However, with Defra having formed the TB Eradication Group and planning a badger vaccination trial in England, and the Welsh Assembly Government pursuing a TB eradication plan and planning a targeted badger cull in Wales, it is clear that different types of leadership are now being demonstrated in England and Wales.

  • The final report of the Bovine TB Advisory Group is available at www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/tb/partnership/advisorygroup.htm

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