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Breaking down barriers on bovine TB

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WITH the debate having focused so firmly on whether or not and how to cull badgers, people could be forgiven for thinking that this is the only aspect of bovine TB control that is currently receiving attention. This is unfortunate, because badger culling represents only one part of a much wider strategy for controlling the disease and, with so much attention being devoted to this issue, the efforts being made in other areas are in danger of being overlooked.

That such efforts are indeed being made has been much in evidence this month, both in London, where, on June 11, Defra issued a consultation document on strengthening movement controls applied to cattle, and in Cardiff, where, from June 16 to 19, the British Cattle Veterinary Association, along with the AHVLA, Defra and the Welsh Government, hosted an international conference on Mycobacterium bovis. Although, on the face of it, the Defra consultation might look like just another paper exercise, the outcome could have significant implications at farm level. Meanwhile, the international conference in Cardiff did much to highlight the complexities of bovine TB and the multiplicity of approaches, both established and in development, that may be needed to control it.

Defra's consultation document can be seen as a logical consequence of its Strategy for Achieving Officially Bovine Tuberculosis Free status for England, which was published in April, having been published in draft form and itself been the subject of a consultation exercise some nine months before (VR, April 12, 2014, vol 174, pp 364, 367). Among other things, the strategy introduced the idea that England should be divided into ‘Low Risk’, ‘High Risk’ and ‘Edge’ areas, with control measures being tailored to and applied appropriately in each area. It also made clear that the responsibilities of farmers would include the effective application of controls on cattle and, in November last year, as well as announcing a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to overdue TB tests, Defra sought views on proposals to introduce a number of new control measures aimed at further reducing the risk of spreading disease between cattle herds (VR, December 7, 2013, vol 173, p 534, 535).

The consultation document published this month takes this process further, seeking views on plans to remove the current premovement testing exemption for cattle movements within a Sole Occupancy Authority (VR, June 21, 2014, vol 174, p 618). It is also seeking views on whether farmers should be legally required to make more information about the TB history of their herds available to buyers when selling stock and on whether postmovement testing should be made compulsory for cattle moved from the annual testing areas of England and Wales to herds in the Low Risk Area of England; depending on the comments received, Defra plans to put forward proposals and consult further on these aspects at a later date. All this seems a rather elaborate means of introducing measures which make sense in disease control terms and which have already been outlined in the overall strategy. However, if there is one thing that has been learned about disease control over the years, and efforts to control bovine TB in particular, it is that measures are unlikely to be successful if they are not practicable or if those expected to implement them have not been involved in their development and, therefore, are not ‘on board’.

Whether simply holding a series of consultations will achieve the necessary degree of buy-in remains to be seen, but this must clearly form part of the overall approach. In the meantime, interestingly, amid all the science on display at the 6th International Conference on M bovis in Cardiff this month, the importance of taking social factors into account when developing and implementing disease control policies was one of the messages that stood out. When the last international conference was held in New Zealand five years ago, social science barely featured in the programme; this time, a plenary lecture and a whole day's lecture stream were devoted to the topic. As events continue to demonstrate, farmer and public attitudes can have a significant impact on how effectively disease control measures are implemented and, during the day, speakers explained how social science could contribute to a better understanding of those attitudes and behaviours and how they might be changed, in relation to issues such as biosecurity, disease surveillance and also controls on wildlife. One point made during the conference was that bovine TB was primarily a social problem rather than an epidemiological one, and, while social science might not be able to provide all the answers, it could help answer some questions as well as raise new ones, and needed to form part of an interdisciplinary approach.

At a practical level, it has long been recognised, and is currently being demonstrated through, for example, the Cymorth TB project in Wales, that local vets, who are known and trusted by their clients, have a pivotal role in helping farmers to control bovine TB and other diseases; they can also play a role in bridging the gap between policymakers and farmers and in ensuring that some of the social barriers that might be hindering disease control are overcome. How effectively they will be able to do this in the future will in no small part depend on the outcome of the AHVLA's tendering exercise to procure the services of private practitioners to carry out TB testing and other services on behalf of the state. The terms and precise details of that tendering exercise have still to be announced, despite being the cause of much uncertainty and despite the AHVLA having outlined its plans almost a year ago (VR, August 3, 2013, vol 173, p 103; August 10, 2013, vol 173, pp 128, 129).

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