In a letter to the Veterinary Record (23rd. April), senior vets from Devon, Glos, Bristol and Sussex give an update on the letter addressed to the Secretary of State for Agriculture, requesting urgent action on the reservoir of bTb in badgers.
What will not be lost on the CVO (Chief Veterinary Officer) is that the signatories were SVS personel of the highest level, all specialists in bovine tuberculosis, but now unfettered by government employment restrictions.
The 'Official Secrets Act' clause we expect, would impede their successors' ability to "tell it as it is" - which is exactly what it is meant to do.
Describing the letter as;
".... the result of total exasperation that a government department, statutorily charged with the responsibility to eradicate a serious disease such as bovine Tb, and in full knowledge of the cause, can allow its control to deteriorate so rapidly that the number of outbreaks now equates to that last seen 40 years ago.
"Over many years peer-reviewed articles, written by State Veterinary Service (SVS) staff and MAFF biologists and agreed for publication by the then SVS Directorates, have elaborated the role of the badger as a maintenance host for bovine Tb in Britain, and the effect this disease was having on the species. Has the Directorate made the Minister aware of these findings?
Over half the adult badgers found dead in fields or farm buildings were shown to have generalised Tb with emaciation. Insidious lung disease in wild badgers was found to continue for a year before death. But where renal Tb developed following generalisation, death was accelerated. Tranmission of infection from one social group of badgers to another was found generally to occur through immigration of diseased individuals. But in disturbed populations, and those with a particularly high population density, territorial defence was found to result in fights, which frequently led to the disturbing phenomenon of bite wound transmission of infection.
They remind the Minister that..
"Where strategic culling was undertaken the disease was successfully controlled until 1986, since which time piecemeal efforts, followed by the cessation of all control, have led to an unfettered progress of the disease across much of the endemically infected area. Tb has become a serious threat to the wellbeing of the species.
While primarily a disease of the badger, infection is not only spreading to other badgers, but spilling over into the environment to affect other species. Cattle, being abundant and fully susceptible are frequently acting as sentinels of badger disease. Testing and slaughter of reactors largely averts the devlopment of overt disease in most cattle, but this wretched disease continues unabated in the maintenance host.
Infection in all 5 species of wild deer in this country has now been confirmed and a worrying development of infection in rural cats has been recognised more recently. (See our post: The Cat's out of The Bag - archived.)
Treatment of diseased wild animals is not feasible, and culling such communities is unfortunately necessary to stop the remorseless spread of this serious notifiable disease to cattle and man. We feel attempts to raise the immune status of apparently healthy badgers should also be made, using BCG. Wide scale trials of vaccination of badgers are a positive measure that should be attempted to protect the species as far as possible. Or do we continue with current policy, and watch the problem become completely out of control? One certainty is the complete failure of control measures directed against cattle alone, the policy advocated by the ISG. Just killing more and more cattle was the approach we used 40 years ago before we knew that the badger was a maintenance host. Then it was understandable, now it is incomprehensible.
The Minister has announced that action against this problem will await the completion of the hopelessly flawed Krebs trials, which have been more to do with political procrastination than science. All signatories to our letter expressed 'no confidence' in these trials, and considered them completely discredited. Professor Godfray, Imperial College, London found the statistical method to be flawed, and has questioned what benefit might be gained from their continuance following the highly successful Four Area Trials in Ireland. In Parliamentary Questions it was admitted that trapping efficiency in the Krebs trial was from 30 - 80 percent. Additionally, there have been problems of non-compliance and interference. At the end of the excercise the results are likely to be inconclusive and unreliable, despite a spend to date of £31 million, and a projected further £7.4 million of public money.
We feel that this charade should cease immediately, allowing effective control to be started forthwith".
404 veterinary surgeons and members of the RCVS, have now signed the letter indicating their 'total exasperation' with current non-policy on bovine tb. The one sided approach. - that is just slaughtering more and more cattle, with no action on the wildlife reservoir of the disease - they point out was the approach used 40 years ago, before the badger's role was known. (And when, as David Denny points out (see post below) cattle contact and spread of bTb was successfully prevented by 2 strands of wire 6 feet apart).
Their comment on this approach is scathing: " Then it was understandable, now it is incomprehensible".