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Why Aren’t We Vaccinating Cattle?

Bovine TB – Time for a Rethink

It is chronic and debilitating, it puts farmers out of business and destroys livelihoods. Are we talking about the disease, or the policy to control it?

Under the current UK policy, cattle are tested at regular intervals for exposure to Bovine TB. Those that fail the test are slaughtered and severe restrictions on cattle movement are placed on the farm. This is the ‘test and cull’ regime. It costs taxpayers £100 million a year and has a devastating impact on farmers.

Test and cull requires regular and stressful handling of cattle which compromises both animal welfare and human safety. Compensation does not always cover the value of individual culled animals, and does not cover the consequences of movement restrictions or the loss of critical breeding stock. Even DEFRA describes the diagnostic skin test for Bovine TB as ‘imperfect’ in its ability to correctly identify animals that have been exposed to Bovine TB.

The test and cull policy, we are told, is there to protect human health, animal welfare and to meet our international (EU) commitments. Is it worth the cost?

Human Health: In the UK, human infection with the bacterium responsible for Bovine TB (Mycobacterium bovis) is almost non-existent because milk is pasteurised milk and meat is cooked.  Most of the very few cases of Bovine TB in humans were initially contracted in other countries or before the pasteurisation of milk became the norm.

Animal Health: Infected cattle have little probability of developing the disease and seldom show symptoms during their (often short) economic lives. Bovine TB can remain dormant in an animal for many years or indefinitely. If an animal reacts to the skin test this does not mean that it will go on to develop symptoms, be infectious, or become ill. There are other diseases of cattle that pose a more serious risk to human and animal health yet are not even notifiable. Many are simply vaccinated against.

International Commitments: UK policy is ultimately driven by the EU which requires member states to eradicate Bovine TB. It lays down the means to be used, and does not allow cattle vaccination. Since the BSE ban was lifted, the annual value of live cattle exports from the UK has never exceeded £3.3 million.

What is devastating about Bovine TB is not the disease.

It is the test and cull policy.

As the Bovine TB Advisory Group concluded in its final report to Defra:

“Bovine TB has been a difficult and demanding problem for many years. There are reasons for believing that it can be controlled and finally eradicated but this will require a long-term commitment by all stakeholders and take at least 20 years.”

Can we afford the cost, and will farmers tolerate another 20 years of movement restrictions, inaccurate testing and compulsory cattle culling?

It has been pointed out that other countries with so-called wildlife reservoirs have achieved OTF status (Officially TB-free). However, they have done this by using the skin test as it was designed - as a herd test. If one animal fails the test, the whole herd is slaughtered and restocking is delayed. Officially TB-free status does not mean the disease has been eradicated, just that it has reached a low level – less than 0.5% of herds having breakdowns over a 5 year period. Even Officially TB-free countries have Bovine TB.

Would it not make sense to vaccinate cattle?

Vaccines can be used for two complementary purposes - to protect individuals or to protect populations. No vaccine provides complete immunity to individuals, just a measure of protection. If enough animals are vaccinated with a typical vaccine it is near impossible for an epidemic to occur – this is the principle of herd immunity.

According to DEFRA, a cattle vaccine against Bovine TB will be licensed this year (2012). However, current EU laws do not allow vaccination against Bovine TB. This is because BCG vaccination of cattle can interfere with the skin test, which is the recognised primary test for Bovine TB.

Defra state that they are working with the EU to change EU legislation on cattle vaccination, and on the use of the DIVA test which can differentiate between a vaccinated and an infected animal. They are working towards having the test certified for use at the end of 2012.

It is imperative that the obstacles to vaccinating cattle

against Bovine TB are removed as quickly as possible.

An EU derogation could be obtained to allow the UK to introduce a programme of cattle vaccination against

Bovine TB without further delay.

With thanks to www.rethinkbtb.co.uk

Conservatives Against Fox Hunting working within the Conservative Party to advance animal welfare