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Communicating on bovine TB

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IT IS difficult to separate politics, science and emotion in all the debate currently surrounding how best to control bovine TB. However, a report published by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) last week is helpful. Based on an inquiry initiated by the committee last November, it focuses specifically on vaccination, providing a useful account of the current state of play with regard to vaccine development, while also considering the part that vaccines might ultimately play in helping to control the disease in cattle and badgers. Published on the same day as an Opposition motion to halt the proposed pilot culls of badgers in two areas of England was defeated in the House of Commons, the report is clearly relevant to the culling debate, as vaccination is often held up as a viable alternative to culling.

Like others have done before, the EFRACom concludes that vaccination could be a useful tool in the fight against bovine TB – but not yet. Specifically, it concludes, ‘Vaccination is not a panacea that will solve overnight the problem of bovine TB in cattle and badgers. The impact of the available injectable vaccine for badgers is unproven in the field, an oral vaccine for badgers is several years away and it may be 10 years before a cattle vaccine is available for use and at present we do not know how effective such a vaccine might be under UK conditions.’

While making clear that vaccination is likely to be expensive and is ‘no magic bullet’, and that there are various practical problems to be overcome, the EFRACom emphasises that work in this area is well worth pursuing and that the public needs to be kept fully informed of both the issues involved and the progress being made. ‘Our inquiry has shown that the quality of information in the public domain about the availability of the cattle vaccine and oral badger vaccine and the efficacy of the injectable badger vaccine has not been good enough,’ the select committee says, while pointing out that ‘There is a great deal of interest in this subject and the Government must do a better job in satisfying it.’

The committee expresses disappointment that, although an injectable vaccine for badgers has been available for use since March 2010, the Government still does not have a clear strategy for deploying it and describes the cancellation of five of six badger vaccine deployment projects soon after the General Election in 2010 as ‘a missed opportunity to collect valuable data on the effect of the badger vaccine’.

Regarding work to develop a cattle vaccine and an associated test to differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals (DIVA test), it suggests that ‘during the last 18 months the debate on the availability of a cattle vaccine for bovine TB has been characterised by a lack of clarity and public misunderstanding’. It says the Government must bear much of the responsibility for this, and that public expectations about how soon a vaccine might be available have inadvertently been raised inappropriately as a result. It notes that, in January this year, the European Commission set out a 10-year timetable under which the cattle BCG vaccine and DIVA test might become available for use, but points out that testing the vaccine under UK conditions could be a lengthy process and that the timetable was only indicative. The Government, it says, must do all it can to speed up the process without compromising the collection of the robust field data that will be needed to satisfy the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, the European Commission and the World Organisation for Animal Health.

Regarding oral vaccination of badgers, the committee notes that an oral vaccine that was cost-effective and easy to deploy would arguably offer the best means of creating a healthy badger population, but that there are still challenges to overcome. It welcomes the Government's commitment to the development of an oral baited vaccine for badgers and urges it to make sufficient resources available to accelerate research in this area.

Although the EFRACom's report is primarily concerned with vaccination, it also draws attention to the central importance of the cattle testing regime to the control of bovine TB, suggesting that there might be scope for applying the gamma interferon test more widely and developing this test further. Highlighting the importance of movement controls and biosecurity, it also recommends that the Government should explore the possibility of incorporating local veterinary surgeons into strategies for improving farm biosecurity and disease control, noting that ‘The local vet is well placed to know what is going on in a particular herd and will be familiar with the area and trusted by the farmer.’ Some of the committee's most pertinent comments, however, relate to communication and the need to ensure that the public is kept fully informed of developments. There is always a risk that facts will be misinterpreted, particularly in a debate as emotive and heated as this one, but they do need to be out there for all to see.

▪ Vaccination against bovine TB. EFRACom 2013. www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environment-food-and-rural-affairs-committee/news/bovine-tb-report-publication/. Accessed June 11, 2013

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