Monday, August 24, 2009

'Alas poor Yorick.....'

We have mentioned not a few times a 'management' strategy, based on badger's own behaviour as a possible answer to the TB problems this country faces. But the idea that badgers themselves exclude their old and sick members has yet to find favour with Defra's desk jockeys. Although PQs describe how Central Science Laboratory (now reinvented as FERA?) explain that they had:
"... identified behavioural differences between badgers excreting m. bovis and uninfected animals. Badgers excreting m.bovis had larger home ranges, and were more likely to visit farm buildings." [ Col 684W 23rd. March 2004 [158375]]
And the diminutive John Bourne appeared to agree with this, commenting in the ISG Final Report that:
.. infected badgers appear to range more widely and disperse further than uninfected animals (Garnett et al 2005; Pope et al 2007)
So where do these illustrious researchers, professors and academics think such badgers go? Although they flit around the word 'dispersed', they do not appear to associate it with homeless, disorientated and sick badgers; where do they hide? Obviously the word' hospital sett' has got the good professor rattled. He gives it a derisory whirl on p.171 of the ISG report.
In fact it gets a whole paragraph.
"It has been proposed that [TB] infection may be controlled by repeated culling of badgers in a number of 'hospital setts'. This suggestion stems from the speculation ( ??? ) that m.bovis infected badgers may be "expelled from their own setts due to disease.." [ making them] .. more likely to colonise setts vacated by other badgers, as they are too weak to dig their own" (British Veterinary Association, 2005)
The paragraph goes on the say that culling such setts would be a highly 'imprecise method of removing infected badgers'.
That would be compared with, what? Doing nothing doesn't seem to be working too well, but let that pass. Defra have.

But has anyone actually seen one of these 'hospital setts'? We haven't. But a blogger on Farmers Guardian website has. And we are grateful for sight of the photo of these excavated remains of a previous occupant, with a newly enlarged hole in the background..

The bones are described in the FG piece thus " .. the skull and leg bones appear to be at least 6 months old, possibly up to year. They could be older but are certainly no less. They are the skull, femur and tibia of a 'fully mature, well grown animal as shown by the very high parietal crest on the top of the skull. The teeth are worn and from that, the animal would appear to be at least 5 years old. The height of the crest of the skull, and the width of the jaws indicate a very powerful animal, likely to be male'.

Pat Bird, the writer, explains that this 'ties in very nicely' with a new confirmed TB breakdown of her herd which began in July 2008, and is ongoing. The health and welfare of the current excavators, digging into this huge, historic and disused sett is also discussed.

Farmers Guardian has two TB bloggers, and stories from the farm of Julia Evans can be read here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

bTB Risk - whose?

We touched on the subject of the 'risk' from exposure to mycobacterium bovis, the causal agent of bovine tuberculosis, in our posting here. And steering everything to do with this Grade 3 pathogen is HSE (Health and Safety Executive) who are extremely precise in their interpretation of the EU directives found here.

HSE do not distinguish between laboratories handling m.bovis, farms under TB restriction due to the exposure of their cattle to it, or exposure in the countryside from wildlife. As we quoted in that posting, they require Risk Assessment forms, data logs of visitors and protection offered. Up to date COHSS papers describe m.bovis thus:
Natural hosts: Cows, [but] also found in badgers and deer.
Disease in humans: Chronic progressive disease with fever and weight loss.
Transmission: Originally through drinking unpasteurised milk. Now from breathing in of infectious aerosols of respiratory discharges and possibly handling meat from infected animals.

We are glad that the 'unpasteurised milk' loophole as the cause of bTB, firmly closed for the majority during the TB eradication schemes of the 1950s and 1960s, is starting to die a death and HSE are at last beginning to wake up to 'aerosol' infection from all infected animals including wildlife. As in environmental contamination.

So what are the implications for farmers whose herds are under restriction from TB?
For open spaces where the public have a 'right to roam, and footpaths which cross territory occupied by infected wildlife?
For National Trust land, including the 'badger watch' areas of Woodchester Park?

In the words of a litigation lawyer, "there is no such thing as 'low risk'". Either there is risk, or there is not. You can't be a 'little bit pregnant', so no half way house, which is what Defra have been trying to argue with bTB. We have said many times that the level of environmental contamination which the tested, slaughtered sentinel cattle are flagging up, is something which our population, and other mammals have not encountered before. But not only is it reckless and dangerous to put them 'at risk', it may be against the many laws surrounding the control of this pathogen.

From HSE and top lawyers, the advice is that any risk must be advised, both to the public and to employees. Risk assessments undertaken, and all guidelines followed as befits the seriousness of this Grade 3 pathogen. As far as insurance goes, the matter is far from clear. But the gist of today's conversations is that if the steps advised in HSE literature have not been followed, including warning the public of the possible risk, then damages could be considerable.

So who should be responsible? For that and some sense we have to look to Switzerland, where Dr. Ueli Zellweger tells us that the Swiss veterinary authorities use public notices in their newspapers to post details of animal diseases, particularly zoonoses. Thus they fulfill their obligations to 'inform' their population of 'risk', and more importantly, what they are doing to reduce it. That way, he says, they keep the public both informed and on side.

So is there scope here for Defra to actually use the risk assessments which AHO have to complete for every new herd breakdown? These are the ones which the ISG did not use for the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial, preferring instead to use an 'assumption' of 2 parts cattle to one part badger, give each 'roughly equal importance' and run with that - but let that pass. Nevertheless, they are there and in the SW at least they come firmly down on 'wildlife, particularly badgers' as the cause of the majority (up to 90 per cent) of TB breakdowns in cattle. And this throws wide open the responsibility for such warnings of 'risk'. Given that in many cases, the 'wildlife' causing the problems is not domiciled on the farm which is on the receiving end.

Defra do however have the logistics with which to offer the appropriate 'risk' advice, in the form of their Parish testing maps. If a single farm within a parish has a confirmed TB breakdown, then the parish testing interval is reduced to annually. Twenty years ago, the job would have been quite small - just a scattering of dots on the map of GB - as shown on here and on page 60 of the ISG Final Report.

But two decades of prevarication mean that every parish shown in red on the most recent Defra map is on an annual testing regime. Thus environmental 'risk advice' is a much more comprehensive job.

That does not mean that it can be shirked.

(Maps courtesy of Defra, are Crown Copyright and must not be reproduced for commercial purposes, without permission from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. They may be used for news reporting or research.)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

bTB in Spain

For the first time in 40 years, bTB has been found in continental mainland European badgers, according to a report in the Veterinary Record,[163:1 59-160(2008). R.Sobrino DVM (and others) say that this is the first time that active disease has been found since a badger with bTB was examined in Switzerland in 1963 (Bouvier et al)

They point out that although wild boar and deer are able to maintain a reservoir of the disease in spain, a serological survey found;
.. antibodies to M bovis MPB70 in badgers (23 per cent), foxes (3 per cent) and lynxes (4 per cent) from Doñana National Park (southern Spain), strongly suggesting that these animals had contact with M bovis.
In the report, the authors describe the first case of clinical bovine TB in a free-living Spanish badger and discuss the implications of this observation for bovine TB control in Spanish wildlife and livestock. They describe how an adult female badger was
.. found moribund in Cabañeros National Park (central Spain) on December 14, 2003 and taken to the nearby Instituto de Investigacíon en Recursos Cinegéticos laboratory immediately. The badger died during transport.
Subsequent postmortem found generalised TB pretty well everywhere in this animal, including lungs, trachea, kidneys liver and lymph nodes. It weighed just 3.5 kg.

The authors point out that although this is the first report of clinical bovine TB in a badger from Spain, and also the first report of bovine TB in a badger in continental Europe in the past 40 years,
..this is not an isolated observation, since a second case was detected recently in the León province of north-western Spain. In that case, a badger captured on a dairy farm with a recent history of bovine TB was analysed at the veterinary faculty of the University of Léon, and a positive M bovis culture was obtained from a pooled LN sample. Molecular typing revealed the same strain as in cattle (F. García-Marín)
The conclusion of the report points out that:
.. the badger, which is considered to be a reservoir host at other latitudes, may become infected in an area where bovine TB is highly prevalent in ungulates (Vicente and others 2006). The pattern of lesions was similar to that found in Great Britain (Gavier-Widen and others 2001), which is consistent with this badger being an excretor of mycobacteria and potential disseminator of the disease.
They also say that the increase in numbers of badgers observed in certain parts of Spain, particularly the Aragon region from 1992 to 2006 (R. Sobrino, P. Acevedo, M. A. Escudero, J. Marco, C. Gortázar, unpublished observations), could mean an increased disease risk. Thus, more epidemiological research is needed, and active and passive surveillance of badgers and other wildlife TB reservoirs, mainly wild ungulates, is advisable."

And also from Spain comes the sorry tale of bTB, an alpaca herd and its owners, now receiving treatment themselves, for tuberculosis. They have sent us their story:
I am concerned that our story from here, Spain, might well make people say “That’s in Spain, not here in the UK” [But] to you and me it is the same. It’s just that the labs etc here have taken since April 2008 to diagnose our problem. So we have been given a long time, in total ignorance, to work out what is going on here and inadvertently MOVE animals. One of our clients has just lost a female who came from here.

In my opinion, the ability to move alpacas anywhere within England is basically suicide for an emerging industry, and for other livestock owners’ and the wildlife.

I have first hand experience of what TB can do to a herd of alpacas. They seem to be extremely vulnerable to this disease and the ante-mortem tests used at the moment, do not detect infected camelids. Here in Spain, we need movement licenses for our alpacas. This no doubt this could have saved a lot of lives here, if the skin tests did not repeatedly throw up false negatives.

We have lost 3 animals in the last two weeks to TB. All had tested negative in October 2008 and June 2009, using the skin test. We have never had a positive test. At the moment I see no way forward until we have a reliable ante-mortem test for camelids. I look at my animals and think who’s next?
This breeder has lost in excess of 30 animals so far and has witnessed 16 PM’s and seen more or less the same lesions time after time. These are mainly in the lungs and respiratory system. One animal’s trachea was 60% lesions. "We also see it in the liver, but not in all cases." The owners say that the Spanish authorities intend to blood test their remaining alpacas and comment:
I wonder how long other livestock farmers in the UK are going to put up with the knowledge that alpacas need no tests before movement, no licenses and no records of movement. If I was them I would be extremely upset knowing that these animals may have the potential to move any disease around the country, thus putting their herds of cattle etc. in danger. Not forgetting that alpacas, as can other animals, probably pass their diseases onto wildlife! Continuing the cycle.
The owners of this small alpaca herd in the Andalucia region of Spain are now considering a total herd cull of their remaining 20 animals, including 8 pregnant females. Their losses are around £120,000 so far, with the Spanish authorities offering around 300 euros per animal, but with offset disposal costs of 100 euro per carcass. (The remaining alpaca - the remnants of a once thriving business - are valued at approximately £145,000)

The spoligotype of this outbreak in SW Spain has not been found in the UK. It is SBO 295.

The owners of this herd point out that at present there is no [validated] antemortem test for TB in alpacas that allows breeders to 'get ahead' of the disease.
It can spread faster than testing can detect infected alpacas and decimate a herd rapidly. There is a need to spend money now or UK/ European [camelid] industry could collapse as more herds become infected & farmers are not allowed to trade (including mobile matings & ability to show) - cross infection between alpacas seems to be easy; infected animals can pass on the disease at communal hay racks!
They point out that TB in livestock can & does infect people working [or in contact] with infected stock & that this disease is untreatable in alpacas. It is notifiable to authorities and is not a disease to 'bury' down in the back paddock.

Latest figures from Defra in the UK, indicate that almost half of the premises with camelids which they suspect through either deaths or tracings of having bTB problems, have 'refused entry'.

The Spanish alpaca breeders in our story, have been given a long course of prophylactic antibiotics, so they assume that the Spanish authorities are taking the issue of bTB very seriously indeed.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pathogens - Lest we forget.

Joining the media frenzy over a member Woodchester Park's staff who is said to have had a brush with badgerTB, is today's Times. But this should serve as a reminder to all of us, of the reasons for the eradication of bTB. All except those who have commented on the Times' article that is. And there was us thinking readers of that erudite publication were in possession of at least half a brain.

Our big sister site also gave it a prominent post.

Pathogens are listed in different classes according to virulence, infectivity and potential treatment. And lurking in HSE's labyrinth of publications is a listing of various pathogens and their classes. Mycobacterium bovis, the causal agent of bTB is listed as Grade 3. To put that in perspective, only such nasties as Ebola, Lassa Fever and flesh eating bugs are considered more dangerous at Grade 4. Most human diseases, and certainly the ones with which we are regularly bombarded with scare stories by the media, are Grade 2.

The EU, OIE and WHO rules on the handling and containment of pathogens within Grade 3 listings include as a definite 'Yes' to the following:
* People in contact to have regular medical checks for up to 40 years after the last known exposure.
* Access to pathogenic material limited to nominated persons.
* Air filtered by HEPA or other such systems.
* Infected material including any animal to be handled in a a safety cabinet, or in isolation or other suitable containment.
* Carcasses incinerated.
* Bio hazard signs posted.
* Protective clothing to be worn.
* Decontamination facilities to be provided.

Many more actions are 'recommended' as precautions against infection for Grade 3 pathogens. See page 12 of the pdf report (link at the end of this post) for the grading of m.bovis, and pages 21/22 for safety requirements. This is just one of many documents which detail precautions needed for people in contact with this grade of pathogen.

Now we do have a sense of humour, being farmers it comes with the territory. But to comply with the above, would take more than a little organisation, we feel. So we suggest :
* Bio-hazard signs on public footpaths crossing farms under TB restriction.
* A register of people entering the restricted premises.
* Protective clothing including masks and footwear, and an approved disinfectant at entrances to farms, fields and footpaths where movement restrictions apply.
* Handy 'badger bins' into which could be placed any carcasses found, suitably wrapped of course, prior to incineration in an approved facility.
And for the HSE decontamination facilities? Perhaps a sheep dip would suffice?
It's about time Defra took the control and eradication of this pathogen as seriously as do the HSE and the EU. One of the many documents which relate to Grade 3 pathogens and their handling, can be viewed here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Crass and Insensitive.

On Saturday morning, BBC's early morning Farming Today programme covered bTB; in particular they concentrated on the FCN (Farm Crisis Network) report which we covered last month here. This listed comments in harrowing detail of the emotional impact on farmers caught up in the relentless grind of Defra's cattle killing machine which they euthemistically call 'a TB eradication programme'.

The programme interviewed both farmers and vets, who spoke of the 'huge emotional impact', 'fury and frustration' in pretty equal measures and the 'years of frustration' endured with no end in sight as long as the source of the problem remained at large. The veterinary practitioner interviewed described losing good young vets from the industry, who had become totally demoralised by lining up cattle to be shot and of his 'expectation that herds he was testing would fail'. He found the whole thing 'incredibly depressing.'

For a short time the programme can be heard on this link.

But wheeled out at the end of what was (for the BBC) a pretty good coverage, was the inevitible Badger Trust spokesperson. Gone is the bruising spin Dr. Lawson, who, if you remember - and we do - delighted his audience with the comment, also on Farming Today in June 2007, that 'cattle get killed anyway.' His equally crass replacement is Jack Reedy, vice-chairman of the BT.

Asked to comment (why, one cannot imagine) on the huge emotional impact, that continual TB restrictions and slaughter of cattle bring to farmers and their families, Reedy squidged and referred to ISG report. He was quick to dodge the responsibility of 'solutions to the problem', replying that any such were those of the ISG, "not ours".

But then the bit that had us reaching for the 'off' button. The problem [of badgerTB] he implied was not 'emotional' at all, but 'economic'. Thus when Reedy was asked what the BT's solution was to the present problems he regurgitated the ISG solution of 'living with it'. This was to "bear down" on the level of herd breakdowns, and to allow farms to continue trading "even if not definitively clear of infection". And the level of infection in GB will attain, what? We have almost 10 percent of herds having had a TB restriction or 'incident' now. What does this organisation think will happen to the level of environmental contamination should it not be curtailed in their 'chosen' species?

Reedy then explained the TB problems of farms by saying that the "shoe pinches" because of the "economic penalty" which a breakdown entails, and not because of its impact on the animals or farmers. He went on to say that it is "very unusual for farmers to get fond of their cows" and that they are "usually very careful not to". Cattle are not pets (he helpfully pointed out) So pay them enough, and they'll roll over and the TB problem will just disappear? We think not.

At the end of his crass and condescending little speech Reedy reminded his listeners [re a cull of infected badgers], of how this was to be done, who was going to do it, and then rhetorically, "If we cull badgers, who is going to pay?"

Maybe he should ask himself who is paying at the moment because we are not culling infected badgers. And in that equation, he should include pet owners and farmers of minority species equally tangled up in the infective swamp left behind by his cult status money spinners icons, who inevitably end up like this.

"Defra have put up their fence" - after the event.

We covered the story of some very mobile alpacas from Devon and the trail of destruction caused by bTB, diligently uncovered by VLA spoligotyping here, using a report of the incident published in a letter to the Veterinary Record in July 2009.

The owner of the Devon alpacas which made that fateful journey to West Sussex, tells his own story in a pdf entitled Protecting our Alpacas. In this piece he likens the situation of bTB in this country to a series of 'ponds', and points out that although Defra have a remit to control and eradicate bTB in cattle, that does not extend to wildlife or other susceptible species such as alpacas. Once bTB is identified in cattle the machinery of 'eradication' clanks in with slaughter and movement restrictions. But as the author points out:
Unfortunately, they [Defra] have no remit to address reactive wildlife, or minority species such as ours [alpaca] unless they are positively diagnosed at post mortem as having bTB. So the 'pond' keep getting topped up.
He describes the scenario of the journey which he organised for his own alpaca:
Unwittingly I took my alpaca to another part of the country for mating where they fell into someone else's 'pond' [and] brought it back to Devon. They fell ill and 5 1/2 months later were in the VLA Starcross autopsy room. Btb kills alpacas fast - period. I've lost two suri alpacas, their cria, and I've become the proud owner of my very own 'pond'. Defra have put up their fence.

Read this account in full here.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Update - New tests for TB in Alpacas

In case anyone is under any illusion about just what 'tuberculosis' does to a lung when it takes hold, this is a photo of pulmonary cavitation in an alpaca called Willow. He had passed a skin test in late January 2009, and another in early May.

His companion developed a cough and was subsequently euthanased. This was just six weeks after a clear skin test and his very responsible owner agreed to have Willow put down as a dangerous contact at the same time. The postmortem showed pulmonary cavitation and lesions in his throat. But at no time did Willow show any of the physical symptoms normally associated with TB: no weight loss, unthriftyness or cough.

As an update on the testing saga of Dianne Summers' Cornish alpaca herd which we covered here, the news is mixed. Having volunteered and gained permission to use the Chembio Rapid Stat-Pak blood test on her herd, the results were 4positives. Miss. Summers then agreed to pay for X rays to confirm any lung damage ahead of proposed slaughter. The whole herd was Xrayed and when the films were read at the Cambridge Veterinary School, two animals gave 'cause for concern'.

These were not two of the four animals which were positive on bloods. These two animals were isolated, and will be Xrayed again this week. The four alpaca which were positive on bloods are also isolated separately and the herd will be Xrayed at regular intervals to confirm blood results.

Miss Summers points out that if she had relied on the skin test results, her herd would be clear, despite having animals with the tuberculous lungs pictured above.
If she had relied on the blood test, another four alpaca would be for the chop, but having Xrayed the herd she comments that:
" ... if I relied on the results of the blood test alone - 2 of my herd who have shown on X ray as a 'concern', [but] who didn't show positive on Blood test would have fallen below the radar and wouldn't have been isolated and therefore possibly infect my other animals. My 4 positive blood test alpacas have been isolated because the blood test may detect very early signs of TB before it shows up on X Ray.."

Miss Summers's alpacas are not out the woods yet, and the herd will continue to be monitored and Xrayed regularly. Any sign of lesions, will mean the animals are culled. The unreliable results on camelids of the intradermal skin test, described in a 2007 paper as 'so poor as to be meaningless' leave owners who want to protect their herds from tuberculosis little choice but to pioneer different diagnostic tests which in tandem, may give a degree of antemortem confirmation of disease.

Dianne finishes her story thus:
"I will continue to Xray my entire herd every 3 months and will cull any that show TB lesions. I am taking advice from industry experts and have done everything they have recommended.
This is important research but it is going to take a long time before we know how accurate any of this is but its a start. At least I am trying and this may just help currently infected herds and newly infected herds."

We wish her well.

On further Xrays, the two alpacas which gave cause for concern on Xrays, appear clear. Cambridge recommend a repeat screening in a few months. (Xrays will pick lesions less than 1/2 centimetre across, thus at a very early stage). Their results on these two state "So, in summary, the new films do NOT show areas of concern anymore."
And how that leaves the four alpacas, positive to the unvalidated Rapid Stat-pak blood test, (all of which were clear on skin), is anybody's guess.

Cause and effect?

Staff working at MAFF's, Defra's, CSL's, FERA's Woodchester Park (otherwise known as Badger Heaven) in the Cotswolds, are to be tested for tuberculosis, following the possible infection of personel working there - on one of these?

Gloucestershire press has details together with a picture of a 'pretty' badger. Not at all like ours, which is how they end up after enduring a long and unhappy life infected with tuberculosis. Which is of course a serious and sometimes deadly zoonosis. Which is why we should be eradicating it, from whatever source.

While we wish the person involved in the Woodchester incident a complete recovery (far from certain, even with the present cocktail of long term drugs) this incident serves to remind us all - especially Defra - of the seriousness of allowing m.bovis, the bacteria which causes tuberculosis, to become rampant in the environment.

A comment on this post indicates that the problem with Woodchester personel and exposure to badger tuberculosis (bTB) may be more widespread. Although this is unsubstantiated, we post it and would be grateful for any further information.
"What this story is missing is some key facts. Such as the person has been treated in hospital and they are testing her further. Plus another 8 people from Woodchester had tested positive for signs of TB.
Out of the 30 people tested 27 had no immunity to TB, due to no BCG being active".

Scotland goes it alone ..

... maybe.
It was reported last week that Scotland was exploring the possibility of applying to the EU Commission for TB free status.
Farmers Weekly reports;
Scotland is set to capitalise on its low incidence of bovine tuberculosis by applying to the EU Commission for TB-free status.

Only the reservations of auctioneers and meat wholesalers have delayed the Scottish government from applying for "Officially Tuberculosis Free" status.

The rest of the industry, including the country's chief vet, Simon Hall, have appeared keen to adopt even tighter measures to keep the disease at bay and give Scotland an edge over the rest of the UK.

Although Scotland's TB is low, according to PQs, to achieve this hallowed status, the following criteria must be met:
Bovine tuberculosis is notifiable in the country.

99.8 per cent of the herds in the considered geographical area have been officially free from bovine tuberculosis for at least the past three years as disclosed be the periodic testing of all cattle in the area to determine the absence of bovine tuberculosis.

If and when periodic testing of all cattle reveals that 99.9 percent of tested candidates have been in herds officially free of tuberculosis for at least six years, then testing is not required. (20th Nov 2003. Col 1205W [140308]
Data must also collected in a manner of which the EU approves; see also:
"The United Kingdom does not satisfy the requirements of the OIE or the EU to be TB free". ( 16th Dec 2003. Col 821W [ 142000)

In 2008, Scotland recorded 13,854 herds on its VetNet database of which 70 had experienced a TB restriction during the year. That is not 0.2 percent of herds, it is 0.5 percent. And even if Scotland's equivalent of Defra, propose only CNI (Confirmed New Incidents) as they frequently do for GB's data, the figure is still 0.35 percent, almost double the incidence needed for TB free status accreditation.

So although Scotland, from an English viewpoint is in an enviable position with this disease's incidence, it is nowhere near the 99.8 percent required for TB free status, as defined in OIE and EU statute.

South of the border during 2008, GB achieved 9.3 percent of its herds under TB restriction at some time during the year. But from the EU quoted TB incidence for us of around 3.8 percent for 2007, ( a figure which appals the EU Commission, we hear) the figures submitted by Defra are those for CNI only, and do not take into consideration the rump of herds under almost continuous restriction but still shooting their messengers.
Using those figures, (CNI) GB recorded 5.8 percent TB incidence in 2008.

That is half the correct figure, half a story and the result of two decades of half baked non-policy.