Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Sometimes we wonder....

If you're as thick as two short planks, (or a May Queen badgerist) possibly you could be forgiven for getting things hopelessly wrong, but this site - [link] is said, quite proudly, to be 'managed by Defra', so in theory, anything it publishes should be correct.

So why is their September 5th post, flagging up Channel 4's "First Time Farmer's" problems with the disease whose full title is 'mycobacterium bovis' calling it a goddamn virus?
(Impolite note to Defra's apparatchiks - the clue is in that title.)

They describe the programme thus:
"The deadly Bovine TB hits the young farmers’ herds with a vengeance, and first to feel the full force of the disease is 24-year-old Charlie. The brutal virus is wrecking his investment in cattle, and now that the entire herd is quarantined, his livelihood is under threat. Robbie’s herd is smaller but just as vulnerable and is also quarantined. Robbie’s built-up a side-line in farm-reared pork, and turns to selling piglets to keep the cash flowing, but will it be enough?
No wonder this country is in such a mess with this disease.

On the other hand, this 'mistake' follows so many, that we really are not surprised at all.

(Actually, reading this through, we have been quite mild in our criticism. The grammar is crap too. The piece tells us that  "24 year old Charlie is the first to feel the full force of the disease"? That's a bit old for a bull isn't it? And we assume  that the First Time Farmer has not succumbed to zoonotic tuberculosis - yet. Sheesh.

But what we really think of these Jack and Jill 'mistakes' could not possibly have a place on a family blog.) 

Saturday, September 06, 2014


It's ten long years since we started this site: mainly as a vehicle for information already collected about zoonotic tuberculosis, its effect on the wild maintenance reservoir in this country - badgers - and the epidemiological facts dragged out of Defra in the 538 Parliamentary questions which form the base.

We are now seeing projects come around again, wearing different clothes, and some extraordinary statements made which mean that current research projects have (in our humble opinions, of course) a very shaky base on which to stand.

Last week, Defra announced the rolling out of  badger vaccination - [link] in the current 'Edge' areas of England. We say 'current', because as a moving feast, what was an 'Edge' last year, could quite easily be included in high incidence this year.

For example, road kill badgers examined in Cheshire are showing a 24 per cent infection rate with farms following suit at an alarming rate.

So wherever Ken Wignall's badgers were heading, may not be an 'Edge' any longer and infection in its badgers is likely to be, as in Cheshire, considerable. Defra's data, as usual, is way behind the curve.
(Grateful thanks for permission to use the cartoon, published in Farmers Guardian 05/09/2014)

Now you know very well our take on badger vaccination - [link] , doled out indiscriminately to an unscreened population, on a very ad hoc basis. And seeing the take up of matched funding, (£20K out of £250K is a figure we've seen quoted) for these projects, maybe Queen May's badgerists know they're on a hiding to nowhere too.

But our first contradiction comes in with Defra's outright refusal to publish results of ongoing vaccination areas - and there a few now - on the cattle who share these contaminated pastures. In fact the answer to that request earlier this year was an unambiguous 'No'. We quote it below:
"You asked that we consider adding data to our monthly bovine TB statistics to separately report on the Badger Vaccination Deployment Project (BVDP) area in Gloucestershire and the Intensive Action Area (IAA) in Wales. We have no plans to do this at present.

The purpose of the BVDP is to learn lessons about the practicalities of deploying an injectable vaccine; provide training for others who may wish to apply for a license to vaccinate badgers; and build farmer confidence in the use of badger vaccination.

So it would be wrong to use TB statistics for the area to assess the benefits of badger vaccination on TB in cattle."
Well pardon us for pointing out the obvious, but if not to 'assess the benefits' on cattle reactors and farm breakdowns, what are you doing this for?
 (Grateful thanks again to Ken Wignall and FG for use of the cartoon)

The second contradiction comes with a text book answer from the delectable Dr. Cheeseman, ex director of Woodchester Park badger heaven, where peanut fed pets continue to employ many of Cheeseman's successors.

'Thornbury' he snorted both on Radio 4 and Countryfile last week, when presented with the 100 per cent success that the badger clearance there had achieved in just 8 months, (not 25 years) was not a research project because it had no 'control' area.
Mmmm. And the IAA in Wales, undergoing everything but badger culling, has?

Not according to their latest report - [link] which describes on p.6 (of 56) how their Control area may not be comparable at all. In the same genre, they criticise SAM too as unable to identify 'different sorts of breakdowns'. They point out:
Limitations of the report and study design.

"In other words, the purposive selection of the IAA and the difficulty in finding a CA with equivalent bTB incidence reduces the soundness of evidence that any observed differences in bTB incidence are due to bTB control strategies, rather than other differences between the areas in the epidemiology of bTB....."
From what we can see in those long awaited (but out of date by a long mile) graphs, apart from Defra's continuing reluctance to see the difference between 'Incidence' of disease (new breakdowns) and 'Prevalence' (those which fail to clear with testing and slaughtering cattle, bio-garbage or anything other than clearing out infected badgers) the IAA has not made any headway at all.

And who's bright idea was it to lump a badger vaccination programme into the same area as intensive cattle measures? Not very sensible, but neither seem to have had the desired effect, in a realistic time scale which Thornbury most certainly did.

There is a more readable description of these IAA cattle measures and more, on this site - [link] And we will once again remind readers that these cattle measures have all been done before - [link] and ended in inevitable, ignominious and expensive failure.

Our final contradiction is the current obsession with shooting badgers, or rather the thorny question apparently irritating Defra,  'is it humane' to shoot badgers? In mainland Europe, no such sensitivities get in the way of dispatching these animals if they are causing damage to land or property, and 66,000 were shot -[link] last year, from August to October in Germany,  seemingly offending nobody at all.

So these contradictions can be dismissed as pure prevarication - a further excuse for doing nothing at all.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What now?

As MPs pack their buckets and spades and head off for the summer recess, we re-examine the posting which we did in April - [link] In that, we asked a somewhat rhetorical question:
"As Defra and its agencies are the only people who have the power to control zoonotic Tuberculosis in wildlife, but choose to exercise their right not to do that, why should cattle farmers suffer the consequences?"
And it seems those 'consequences' in the form of ever more punitive cattle measures are on their way, courtesy of AHVLA's new boss, Chris Hadkiss. The man obviously hasn't researched - [link] his new department very well at all, but we digress.

 Farmers Guardian - [link] has the story of his plans for us this autumn. But it is the comments below the article which are well worth a read. As is this little gem from career civil servant Mr. H, who after commenting on farmers 'becoming reliant on government support' made the staggering observation that:
“It does concern me – we don’t know it happens but it is quite possible – compensation is repeatedly paid with no improvement on farms."
Well hallelujah! Wake up and smell the coffee Mr. H. That is what happens with a one sided policy, as your predecessors found. Take out the cattle, even or especially those from farms with no bought in animals and no neighbouring cattle contact, but leave the source of the problem behind and you (or your department) end up shooting even more cattle.

On internet forum - TFF - [link] responding to the FG article, many comments echo those in Farmers Guardian.

 And this thread on British Farmers Forum - [link] suggested that if farmers paid to control  zTuberculosis, they would have more say in policy implementation. Again, the comments are worth a read.

Unusually for farmers, the theme through most of these comments is united.

Government introduced statutory protection for badgers, elected not to use that statute to control the disease endemic within them and now wants livestock farmers to 'take responsibility' for the inevitable mess - as in pay for two decades of political intransigence.

But until government loosens its vice- like grip on the statutory protection which surrounds this animal, and treats zoonotic Tuberculosis with the respect a grade 3 pathogen deserves, no matter how much money is poured at the problem, or by whom, it's a hiding to nowhere. 

Cattle farmers and vets will recognise the pictures which illustrate this post, and many will have a pretty good idea what they'd like to do with the equipment.

And on whose anatomy.

Without anaesthesia.

But for those readers who do not recognise this particular 'vice', a description of its capabilities is here. - [link]

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Flying under a flag of convenience?

This disease - zoonotic Tuberculosis - appears to attract the very worst in selective marketing.

From the notorious '74 per cent efficacy' - [link] attributed to BCG badger vaccine lobbed into an indiscriminately infected population, to the deliberate dumbing down - [ link] of statistics for 'other species' deaths from 'bovine' TB, we've seen many examples.

And it is to one of those 'other species' to which we return, with a very upbeat but totally misleading blurb about a a new blood test -[link] designed to seek out zTuberculosis in alpacas. And find it with 97 per cent accuaracy'.

Farmers Guardian - [ link] described the Enferplex test as needing:
"[] a single blood sample to be taken for testing from Camelids. The scheme also uses a statistical assessment to aid determination of herd infection status, pioneered by SureFarm’s Alastair Hayton. This has been approved by Defra.

The company said the scheme would enable herd level testing to confirm freedom from infection, testing of individual stock before movement or purchase and pre-export testing."
Sounds good? The National Beef Association magazine also covered the launch, which was attended by the NFU. The NBA splurge is expanded as follows:
"A £100,000K project, financed entirely by llama and alpaca owners in the UK has successfully developed a test, approved by government, which can prove at 97 per cent accuracy if an animal carries the disease [zTB] or not."
"It will give the owners of the UK's 30 - 40,000 llamas and alpacas peace of mind when exporting because it can demonstrate they are free of TB".
Well hallelujah to that. So what's wrong?

We would suggest a complete misunderstanding of the difference this test has exhibited in the trials between 'Sensitivity' - and 'Specificity'. The accuracy of any diagnostic test depends on a trade off between the two, and unfortunately, in the trials, Enferplex didn't fare too well as one of four assays trialled in terms of its ability to detect disease.

 The full results are in charts prepared by AHVLA  on this link -[link] and although in one chart, the Speciticity of Enferplex is approaching 97 per cent, the Sensitivity or ability to detect to disease is only 66 percent. Meaning that 34 per cent of candidate animals, carrying zTB may be missed.

In the third chart, the sensitivity of Enferplex is very low at 55 per cent, meaning it may miss 45 per cent of infected animals.

From the Alpaca tb website:
"The tables below show the sensitivity and specificity of the tests. The sensitivity of a test is the proportion of truly infected animals that are detected with a test - if a test has 55% Sensitivity it is missing 45% of infected animals.

The Specificity of a test is the proportion of truly uninfected animals that are correctly classified as test-negative. If a test has 99% specificity then 1% will be a false positive.

You can see that when used on their own, the Stat-Pak, IDEXX and Enferplex (2 antigen) have similar sensitivity and could miss around one third of infected camelids.

DPP and Enferplex 4 antigen could miss approaching half (45%) of infected animals."
More comment on this link - [link] and a button to direct readers to the actual paper.

Having looked at the tables, and in particular the Sensitivity or 'the ability to detect disease' in camelids, it would appear that IDEXX and STAT-PAK as a combined screen (after using a skin test primer)  give the best chance of not missing too many infected animals.

Conversely Enferplex, despite it's high profile launch, appears from these figures to be capable of missing anything from 33 - 45 percent of infected animals. As do the other blood assays as stand alone tests.

So one wonders - and not for the first time - what 'government' has to gain from its approval?

 UPDATE: The following information is from AHVLA:
The sensitivity of all the above tests is dependent on a prior skin test which boosts specific antibody responses. Without such a skin test the sensitivity of all the tests could drop by around 20% to 30%, which in the case of the high specificity options could reduce sensitivity to a level where the test is more likely to miss an infected animal than identify it.

This ability of the skin test to boost specific antibody in camelids has been published in 3 separate research papers to date:

Stevens et al., 1998, Canadian Veterinary Journal, 62:102-109 Dean et al., 2009, Veterinary Record, 12, 165(11):323-324 Bezos et al., 2013, Preventative Veterinary Medicine, 111(3-4): 304-313
So sadly it would appear that Enferplex, particularly as promoted, i.e without mention of a priming tuberculin antigen skin test, follows several other blood assay screens for zTuberculosis into a black box of hope, rather than a useful tool for any zTB eradication programme.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

An epitaph to the demise of common sense.

From today's Sunday Telegraph - [link] a thoughtful piece from Owen Paterson, the former Secretary of State at Defra, whose 538 parliamentary questions on 'bovine' TB posed a decade ago, form the basis of this blog.
"I leave this post with great misgivings about the power and irresponsibility of – to coin a phrase – the Green Blob.
By this I mean the mutually supportive network of environmental pressure groups, renewable energy companies and some public officials who keep each other well supplied with lavish funds, scare stories and green tape.
This tangled triangle of unelected busybodies claims to have the interests of the planet and the countryside at heart, but it is increasingly clear that it is focusing on the wrong issues and doing real harm while profiting handsomely."
We described much the same situation, in this post - [link] and this one, earlier this year - [link] as Defra's various quangoes accompanied by Queen May's guitar, circled for the kill.

Thanks for trying Owen, we wish you well.

Sadly, the winner of this particular battle is not David Cameron, but zoonotic Tuberculosis. And in time, that pyrrhic 'victory' will affect us all.

Photo from Sunday Telegraph article : origin AFP and The Farming Forum - [link]

Monday, July 14, 2014

From Russia with love - the saga continues.

The saga of Russia's sabre rattling allegedly because of levels of TB in cattle, continued today as the Irish Independent - [link] reports a ban from Russia on imports of beef offal:
"Suspected traces of Tuberculosis (TB) prompted Russia to impose the highly damaging blanket ban on imports of beef offal from Ireland, the Irish Independent has learned.

The discovery of characteristics of the disease is understood to have alarmed Russian authorities who have cut off the supply of offal from Irish factories.

Officials from the Department of Agriculture are now involved in negotiations aimed at getting the ban lifted.

The sanction was imposed last month following a series of visits from Russian vets to 12 food processing facilities in Ireland."
This is not the first time that Russia has rattled Ireland's cage about high levels of the disease in its cattle population: in 2004 - [link] together with Poland and the UK, The Russian sabre was raised and threats issued. And so serious was this, that the European Commission drew up an inter-community Veterinary certificate - [link] which, if implemented, was another Beef Ban.
And just because that certificate has disappeared into the labyrinth of Defra's website archive, it doesn't mean it isn't lurking in a European drawer, just waiting to be signed. And we have it.

Other postings in 2004 described the process - [link] which led up to this situation, and the frantic diplomatic cartwheels -[link] executed to avoid it. Anything really, except control of the problem in the first place.

When we were reporting this in 2004, with around 5,200 herds under restriction during the reporting period, ( 5.6 percent of the 93,489 herds registered) the UK had half the levels of TB in its cattle, which we now enjoy. And still the mandarins were blissfully unaware of the possible cascade effect - [link] of a possible ban on UK beef products.

 Roll forward ten long and, frustrating years and what have we achieved? The roll out of the new computer system (SAM) no longer gives the number of herds registered, together with the number of herds having TB problems, preferring to concentrate on new outbreaks - a substantially lower figure.

But in 2011, the number of registered herds in GB had fallen to 80,454 and of those, the number with a restriction due a 'TB incident' was 8,108. So 10.07 per cent - or almost double the figure ten years ago.

As the polemic deepens with an unhealthy concentration on cattle votes v. badger votes, and tuberculosis the disease is all but forgotten, just how long can GB keep shoving this particular problem under a diplomatic carpet?

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Figures can Lie and Liars can figure....

A swift response to the recent Cull the Cows - [link] computer generated guff, came on Thursday from farming Minister, George Eustice. Speaking at he Livestock Event, and interviewed for BBC's Farming Today - [link] programme, the Minister was pretty scathing about the modeler's efforts.

Co author, Dr. Ellen Brooks-Pollock of Cambridge University described how the team had entered data into their model of potential TB bacterial transmission of:
Cattle to cattle infection, Cattle infections into to the environment and Cattle movements.
Which is pretty amazing when you realise that up to 52 per cent of badgers in areas of endemic zTuberculosis are carrying this disease. But we digress....

 Dr. Brooks-Pollock went on to explain that her work centred around 'idealised control measures'. Not if you're a cow about going to be shot on the back of a University's half baked theory it isn't: that's not 'idealised' at all. It's terminal.

But George Eustice was having none of it. He pointed out that despite epidemiological evidence to the contrary, the model had ignored badgers completely, focusing on cattle and making many false assumptions. Including one that the disease dies out naturally in the environment in 34 days.
For the pedants, badgers can sustain this disease, maintain body weight, breed and rear cubs for up to 8 years. Reactor cattle are shot - which Dr. Brooks-Pollock had in fact noticed, pointing out that 90 per cent of 'infected farms' posed no risk whatsoever. Quite correct. They are locked down, facing daily [in some cases] visits from infected wildlife and tests every 60 days with anything reacting to such 'visits' slaughtered.

Mr. Eustice stressed that computer models were only as good as the assumptions entered into them, and if those assumptions were wrong (as in this case) then the results were flawed. He also pointed out that a team of experienced Defra vets, and the Chief Scientist - [link] were exposing these flaws and that although the aim of this model was laudable, its assumptions were wrong.

 We can't take credit for the title of this posting: it appeared here - [link] with another succinct quote:
 'correlation does not imply causation'.