Monday, June 29, 2009

More on camelids

We wrote last year of the problems facing the owners of llamas and alpacas, when they succumb to spillover TB. And this has been reinforced by the owner of a small Cornish herd, who has lost 4 alpacas to TB. Dianne Summers entered the following comment below our September 2008 posting.

Since Sept 2008 I have lost 4 alpacas to TB. Last Friday I put down two of my boys who were coughing and despite having negative skin tests 6 weeks earlier, they were both confirmed with Tb.[at post mortem] I did get the research lab to conduct the 'stat - pak rapid test' on the two animals which were put down and the result was a strong positive.
The skin test is useless [on alpacas].
I am in touch with 7 other Tb affected alpaca owners and gathering data - time lines symptoms etc. Many had it brought into their farms through matings etc.

The problem with tuberculosis and anything other than 'bovines', is that government statute does not cover right of entry, testing or control of the disease in any form whatsoever, without the consent of the owner. Miss. Summers has behaved extremely responsibly in offering her alpacas for testing and volunteering them for slaughter. This is not mandatory, even when traces are done on purchased camelids, who show TB spoligotypes inconsistent with the herd owning them at the time of slaughter. She has also pioneered testing of a new and different blood test, the 'stat-pak rapid test' (about which, we must find more) - to confirm ante mortem TB, when the skin test, which is ineffective on camelids, fails.

Many local AHOs are struggling to control this disease in their sentinel, tested cattle, without having the proverbial door slammed in their face by irresponsible camelid owners, who would rather breed, sell and show their animals, (wouldn't we all?) than face up to the unpalatable fact that they have traded, diseased stock. And in doing so, have spread tuberculosis to other herds in other parts of the country. AHOs are aware of the dangers to human health and to other camelids as a result of the habit which these animals have, of spitting. They also show little or no signs of the disease - but spread it readily through breath saliva and spit. Dianne points out:
This is why the popular and highly attended show circuit and on- farm matings are a potential swamp of disease. Also we [camelid owners] do not have to keep any animal movement records. A colleague took one of his females to an alpaca breeder for mating. She came back, but died 188 days later. The pm showed tuberculosis and samples showed that the spoligotype strain type was NOT his farm but the same as the breeders. This breeder refused to test and threatened him with a law suit. My colleague has now lost 9 of his 13 females to TB.
So, we have a burgeoning industry in selling these delightful animals far and wide, offering on-farm matings, with no records of either health status or movements, no responsibility to trace contacts or source if tuberculosis is found, and the owners' 'right' to refuse entry if tracings are carried out? Marvellous. Absolutely bloody marvellous. And Defra? Our Ministry of (some) Animal's Health?

Unfortunately those tending Defra's London window box have yet to catch up with the potential problems infected camelids could pose, and together with the Alpaca Society, are throwing this one into the long grass - along with any semblance of infected reservoir control.

It is left to responsible farmers like Dianne Summers to try and raise awareness of the possibility of TB within the camelid population, so that other owners and breeders are not faced with the problems which she has had. She ends her comment:

This is a serious issue and we need to be open and communicate with each other. I am also trying to set up a support network for all those affected. Please get in touch and any information will be confidential. Dianne Summers 01209 822422
We are grateful for the opportunity to widen the debate for her.

Monday, June 15, 2009

To cull, or how to cull?

The Guardian's George Monbiot has entered the 'to cull, or not to cull' fray, with a highly emotional piece on the proposed badger cull in Pembrokeshire. Describing it as 'brutal, futile and incomprehensible', his diatribe begins:
It would be stupid to deny that badgers are both a reservoir and a vector of bovine TB. They are not the only ones of course: cattle are also responsible for spreading the disease among themselves. But you don't have to deny it to believe that the eradication programme being planned in Wales is mad.

So, having accepted that badgers are both a reservoir and a vector of m.bovis, a selective cull over a smallish area of N. Pembroke is mad? Mmmm.

Readers may remember the heartrending story of the whole herd slaughter of some 800 organic dairy cattle belonging to Trioni farms in that area, earlier this year. Mad? Yup, you could say that.
So what is the answer? Leave this disease to fester in the environment, spilling over into more and more species? Perhaps to cull more cattle? Certainly some of Mr. Monbiot's supporters reckon it would be better to cull the Welsh farmers, which is as insulting as it is unhelpful. But they miss the point. We have reported so many times the utter futility of testing and culling sentinel cattle, while leaving the cause of their immune response to continue reinfecting. That is what is mad. Mad, and expensive and recklessly dangerous.

But there is another way. A total clearance of badgers works (Thornbury), but after more than a decade of prevarication, following the previous decade of sanitisation of policy, the problem is so widespread that any solution has to be more 'management' than 'wipe out'. And that is achievable. So rather than see George Monbiot's teddies flying high, why not look more closely at a workable solution? For sure several 'scientists' may well have to look elsewhere for gainful employment, but with a workable eradication plan, we - as in GB plc - may just avoid walking into another trade ban.

Yesterday's Western Morning News carried an article by freelance journalist Anthony Gibson, describing just such an approach. Mr. Gibson describes not a blanket 'wipe out' as envisaged by the emotional Mr. Monbiot, but a "highly targeted selective cull, on a sett-by-sett basis."
It would obviously rely on being able to identify which badger social groups were infected, and which not. But that can be done either by using the so-called PCR test, or through visual assessments, carried out by people who understand badgers and can tell from looking at them and how they behave, whether or not they are diseased. There is at least one individual in this region who claims to be able to do this, and I have no doubt that there may be others.
"So why ," asks Mr. Gibson, "is neither the technology nor the human expertise being employed as the basis for a culling strategy which everything we know about bovine TB and badgers suggests would be (a) effective, (b) acceptable and (c) affordable?" He answers this rehetorical question:
The explanation, as I know only too well from my days in the NFU, is that any culling policy in England must be able to survive the inevitable legal challenge from the Badger Trust. And the received wisdom is that a culling policy that departs from the recommendations of the ISG might well get the thumbs down from the courts.

No matter that the trials which the ISG assessed were badly carried out and seriously disrupted by activists and foot and mouth disease, or that the ISG's conclusions have been heavily criticised as both illogical and premature by other scientists, including the Government's then Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King. There is a clear danger the ISG report would be viewed by a court as gospel, and that a government attempting to do something not sanctioned by it would lose. It was that analysis, more so even than his obvious lack of political courage, that led Hilary Benn into making the decision he did last year..

And so we have the quite bizarre situation, where as Mr. Gibson points out, "the only badger culling policy on the table is a culling policy we know would be worse than useless." Thus far, both opposition parties appear to have taken on board the necessity of a targeted badger cull, limited to endemically infected areas, and possibly based on the PCR identification of grossly infected setts. And the further they distance themselves from a prevarication 'trial' which showed if nothing else, how not to cull badgers, the better; but let that pass. Mr. Gibson continues:
So what can be done to make a positive outcome more likely? The first thing is to forget about the ISG's crazy ideas on wide-area culling and get behind a selective, targeted cull. []. The second is to make the case for selective culling to the public, and I was delighted to hear sponsorship is well on the way to being lined up for a film which will do precisely that, to be made by Chris Chapman in the autumn.

A twin-track strategy of clearing infected setts by culling, and protecting healthy setts by vaccinating, is not only the obvious way forward with bovine TB, it is the only way forward.

It is essential that the industry now unites behind it.

And then at least these youngsters, may have a chance of avoiding the ever open maw of Defra's killing machine.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Playing for time?

A letter published in Veterinary Times this week, supports Dr. Ueli Zellweger's
concerns over Defra's proposal to vaccinate badgers, endemically infected with TB, with a less than efficient BCG TB vaccine.

The letter from Dr. Lewis H. Thomas, MA, VetMB, PhD, FRCPath, MRCVS comments:
The best that can be hoped for is that DEFRA's strategy will do no harm and not make matters worse. We know that BCG may be proactive in naive [uninfected] badgers, but we have no idea what may happen in chronically infected animals. Rather than damp down infection, it is equally probable that it may light up chronic infections to become overt disease, with even more infectious bacilli shed into the environment. The likelihood of vaccination being effective in the face of massive challenge from naturally infected badgers is highly speculative.

The argument from the badger groups has always centred on this spurious difference of infected badgers v, infectious badgers. So anything that provokes a walled up lesion to beak down, is not the brightest idea, if the candidate is still alive and kicking enough to spread its lethal load. Dr. Thomas continues:
One may ask why perturbation - the opt-out excuse for rational action put forward by the Independent Scientific Group in its June 2007 report - is suddenly no longer a problem? Does DEFRA suppose catching, vaccinating and releasing badgers will be any less of a perturbation than that experienced during the randomised badger culling trials (RBCTs)? And does it suppose enough badgers will be caught to attain the 80 per cent or more cover needed to achieve meaningful protection - even assuming the vaccine is effective?
In Dr.Thomas's view, the DEFRA vaccination strategy " has not been fully researched scientifically and is unlikely to bring any practical benefit", and he concludes;
One in forced to the conclusion that, like the nine year RBCTs this latest speculative move is designed simply to buy the Government five more years when it can pretend it is doing something to stem this wretched disease that is out of control in large parts of the country.
Defra confidently expect them to come to call, and get jabbed. Remember that super cartoon showing the queue? We kid you not.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Spillover - terrier

We have received the following report from a Midlands vet, telling the salutary tale of a terrier - doing what terriers do - and paying the ultimate price.
In March a client came in with a working terrier which had obviously been in the wars. It had a bitten muzzle etc. The owner said it had discovered a moribund badger, killed it and eaten part of it.
Our correspondent patched the terrier up, administered appropriate aftercare and warned the owner to be on the lookout for any signs of TB, which was an obvious danger given the state of this close-to-death badger. Last week, the terrier was again referred:
The dog, although still eating, had lost weight, looked worried / distressed and had shallow breathing. The dog was euthanased, and at PM there were multiple lesions in the liver, the intestines and in the pleura of the lungs there were handfuls of 'millet'.
VLA are culturing samples from the dog (for bTB), but in a further twist to this 'environmental encounter', the terrier had been recuperating with a family who have a young child in the household.

At the pace of a sloth on Valium, and still in utter denial about the risk of this increasing 'environmental contamination' to which pets and their owners are being exposed, Defra, as ever, following their master's voice, seemed reluctant to alert the relevant Communicable Health authorities to the disease risk to this family, and in particular, the child, until they received culture results back from VLA.

Our latest cattle samples have taken over six months; however our correspondent was more forceful, commenting:
"I had to persuade Defra that they should contact the Health authorities now and not wait until culture results are back".

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Post update

We are grateful to Ueli Zellweger for further explanation on why injecting badgers endemically infected with tuberculosis, with a less than reliable BCG vaccine, is not the brightest idea our lords and (political) masters have ever had. Posting below