Saturday, December 19, 2009

Alpacas - TB Awareness meetings.

In response to the increasing number of alpaca herds (puntas) affected by the inappropriately mis-named 'bovine' TB, the BAS (British Alpaca Society) is hosting a series of meetings during January and February 2010, entitled 'TB Awareness'.
These will be presented by BVCS vet Gina Bromage, M.A.,VetM.B.,D.V.M.,M.R.C.V.S , with an introduction from the chairman of the BAS, Mike Birch.

The meetings are open to all and there is no pre-booking or entry fee. Veterinary attendees would be most welcome, as would cattle farmers and anyone else interested in bTB transmission.

Venue are across the country, with details here.

The owners of alpacas in the two cases which we linked to in this post, have between them lost over 40 animals to confirmed bTb. A handful of other herds can account for well over 100 animals, all clinically confirmed during 2009, but not necessarily voluntarily slaughtered as the result of either a skin or blood test and thus accompanied by 'compensation'. Neither have all these TB casualties been culture sampled, as once bTB is 'confirmed' in a herd, to keep lobbing samples to VLA for confirmation of visible disease is deemed a waste of resources. They have been postmortemed by vets, whose findings should have been passed up the line to AHOs.

Thus the figure quoted on the Defra website of '38' alpacas and '2' llamas 'screened' during the period January - September 2009, with '18' infected alpacas and '0' infected llamas proving positive for bTB, would seem to us to be a considerable underestimate - or as it's Christmas and we are being generous, both vets and local AHO offices ane dragging their collective heels over reporting their area bTB positive camelid findings.

Defra's explanatory notes, once one has located the obligatory magnifying glass with which to read them, point out that the collated data, only refers to 'notified suspect and clinical postmortem' cases of bTB during the reporting period, thus passing the buck back to the aforementioned vets and AHOs..

At the moment we'll give Defra's statisticians the benefit of the doubt and hope 'pending' cases will catch up; but we sincerely hope that this published data is not case of managing statistics, rather than managing the problem.

(Update: Thanks to eagle eyed blog watchers for amendments to screened figures. Even with a magnifying glass - we got the lines muddled. The post is now correct to Defra's miniscule data - if not to dead alpacas. )

Friday, December 11, 2009

Definition - 'Maintenance'.

It has become apparent over recent months that a great many misconceptions - some originating in the top echelons of Defra - have been dribbled out to a gullible audience, unchallenged. The description 'maintenance' reservoir for instance, appears to have been atttached umbilically both to badgers as a source of bTB - and also cattle in equal measure. This is not so.

A dictionary definition of the word is 'capable of maintaining', 'cause to continue', 'retain in being' and 'preserve intact'. You get the picture? Badgers (unfortunately for them) tick all the boxes which allow this very accurate description to be applied.

Research over many years has found that they can maintain body weight, bear and rear young, in fact survive quite happily, while intermittantly shedding bTB. In the latter stages of the disease, the body is overwhelmed by disease and they are excluded from their groups, ranging further, scrapping and fighting for territory, and hiding up in shallow, single hole setts, often close to farm buildings and an easy food supply.

At this stage and possibly before, depending on the site of lesions, their ability to transmit disease is phenomenal, with up to 300,000 units of bacteria available in just 1ml of urine. 30 ml is dribbled at each void or used for scent marking, and just 70 units is needed to infect any cow who sniffs it. And while cattle will usually avoid faecal contamination, there is less chance for them to avoid urine. Pus dropping from open abcesses (see pic.) is also an opportunity for disease transmission. The amount of bacteria in badger lesions is huge.(All this is archived in the PQs which form the base of this site.)

So what of cattle? If they are left untested, and fulminating disease, then of course any TB would spread. And in the 1930s and 40s it did. But after the TB eradication process in the 1950s and 60s, using test and slaughter, this country - like many others - had all but eradicated TB. Numbers of reactors dropped to a very low level, with just an isolated animal expected to turn up at slaughter with aged, walled up lesions. The exceptions were two 'hotspots'. One in Glos and the other in SW Cornwall where test / slaughter failed to clear the problem - even with whole herd slaughter, cohort slaughter and all the rest of the cattle-only-tools. We explained this in our posting here - a posting which was compiled for us, by Divisional Veterinary Managers who had overseen this eradication process.

Cattle lesions are not particularly laden with bacteria, in fact scientists have explained to us that they "could look for half an hour" before finding a single bacteria on culture slides. Conversely the pink stained badger excretions "were jumping off the slide" and visible without the need of a microscope. Thus in the field, cattle to cattle transmission is difficult and happens over a long time scale. A fact born out by the Pathman project which found no samples taken from salami sliced reactor cattle over a long time frame, to be capable of onwards transmission.

So we go back to our Parliamentary Questions - and more particularly their Answers, where on 30th January 2004, Col 540W [150492] baby-Ben Bradshaw replied:
"All countries that have either eradicated or have a programme to control, bovine tuberculosis use one or more forms of the skin test"

of which the 'comparable intradermal' version is used in the UK, and its efficacy?:
28th January 2004 Col 382W [150495] "... on standard interpretation, provides sensitivety between in the range 68 to 95 per cent and specificity in the range 96 - 99 per cent."
Thus on regularly tested herds (and ours has had 60 day tests for way too long) - the top end of 90 per cent is as good as it gets. The junior Minister also mentioned that "In the abscence of a wild life reservoir ", all countries operating this test and slaughter policy had eradicated or were a way down the road to eradicating bTB completely. How would that be possible, if cattle were indeed a 'maintenance reservoir' of this disease? Or is our UK bTB bacteria different from anywhere else in the world? (We are aware it has acquired a 'political' DNA appendage - but let that pass....)

The Minister also told us that after the badger clearance at Thornbury, and smaller trials in Steeple Lees, Hartland and East Offaly, cattle TB had reduced significantly or in the case of Thornbury - disappeared altogther for at least ten years, with 'no other contemporaneous action' involved, other a clearance of infected badgers. How could that be, if cattle were 'maintaining the disease?

In a regularly tested cattle population, with reactors removed promptly, cattle do not 'maintain' TB. And when the unfettered, free ranging 'maintenance' reservoir of infection is controlled or removed, TB disappears from cattle populations completely. Once again we are grateful, for permission to reproduce the chart below, painstakingly compiled by AHOs in the SW, showing their professional risk assessments for cattle breakdowns. And as you can see - cattle are not the problem. The vast majority of cattle breakdowns were attributed to badgers.

The description 'maintenance' when applied to cattle TB, is not born out by past experiences both in this country or more especially in others where no wildlife reservoir exists, (or if it does present problems, it is controlled in parallel).

Thus, in our opinion, it is at best misleading and at worst duplicitous to describe cattle as a 'maintenance reservoir' of bTB - unless of course that description refers to the largesse associated with pensions and employment generated by its continued and increasing presence.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

One man's story .....

Today, we share the diary of one small alpaca herd, hit by bTB earlier this year.

The owner will remain anonymous - for the time being - but his location is within a midlands bTB hotspot, where over half (55 per cent) of badgers captured during BROs in the decade prior to 1997, proved positive for bTB.

The property has massive badger activity and was once home to over 50 alpacas. The herd (punta) comprised mainly females and 10 males with nothing purchased in for over a year, but animals sold. bTB was confirmed in September this year, but three months prior to this the owner had treated a male with Orchiditis. This animal failed to respond to treatment, and died. The carcass was collected by the local hunt. No samples were taken. (This male is not included in figures of losses from the herd)

September 2009
During routine husbandry, a female was found to be underweight. Veterinary advice was sought, and this female and another were treated with antibiotics, and had blood screens for various other disease - all of which proved negative. One female died and a PM carried was out on farm. The vet recognised TB lesions and took the carcass to VLA Luddington for further investigation.
TB confirmed on PM. This female had a 5 week old cria.

The herd was put under official TB restriction by AH and the owner informed the British Alpaca society (BAS) of confirmed bTB.

October 2009
The cria from the first female loss is now 7 weeks old and very ill. She had died by the time the vet arrived to euthanize: vet euthanized another female, which was showing slight weight loss but was frothing at the mouth. Postmortems showed lung and liver abscesses respectively. The adult female suffered a ruptured lung abscess. Samples sent for culture.
Oct 5th 2009. First skin test on herd.
Oct 7th 2009 One female aborted.
Oct 8th 2009 Skin test results read: one positive Female. All other animals clear.
Although showing no symptoms, the skin test positive female was culled and was positive on postmortem. She has a 4 month old male cria.

October 14th. Vet called to examine two females which were negative on the skin test reading the previous week. This AHO told the owner that in her opinion these two alpaca were reactors as there is a swelling on the bovine injection site 6 days after the 'official ' 72 hour reading. ( This was not the same AHO who read the skin test on Oct 9th : protocol for alpaca skin tests indicates the reading should be at 'severe interpretation'; i.e a 2mm rise only for camelids.)

Oct 16th 2009
A male alpaca was suddenly taken very ill. He was unable to get up and appeared in pain. He had no weight loss, and at the time of death (euthansed) weighed 92 kg. He was put down by AHO and taken to VLA Luddington.

October 21st.
AHO suggest euthanasia for the two females seen on 14th October, and recommend 'monitoring' the herd, by weighing them on a regular basis and reporting any weight loss to AHO. The owner notices another female is coughing and reports this to AHO.

October 27th. Rapid Stat Pak blood test carried out on four animals. The owner has agreed (verbally) to slaughter if they are positive. No paperwork issued. All the bloods are positive.

November 2009
AHO culled the four blood test positives. All had TB confirmed on postmortem.
As TB has been confirmed in all the animals euthanized by local AHO, the owner is now offered a blood test on his entire herd - or what remains of it..
November 17th /18th 2009. Remaining 44 alpacas blood tested with Rapid Stat Pak and Gamma Interferon IG .

12 females failed both blood tests.(inc one 4 month cria)

14 fell into what the AH Officer called a 'Grey area' - in other words failed one blood test but passed the other.
Owner advised to isolate these animals, and watch for symptoms.

14 Tested negative on both tests

4 animals failed to give a sample suitable for gammaIFN screen..

Nov 25th: All 12 animals which were positive to both tests, plus one other showing symptoms were culled.(2 were taken to VLA Luddington the other 11 were PMd at a slaughter house by vets.) All showed lesions of TB.

LOSSES TO DATE : 22 alpacas. Spoligotype is confirmed as VLA 17, which is the strain of TB indigenous to the area. It is found in badgers and tested, slaughtered reactor cattle. AHO visits to discuss the 14 animals which fell into ‘grey’ areas of the blood tests, and the 4 which had given samples not suitable for screening.
To date, the owner has had no contact from the Health Protection Agencies, to offer screening for human contacts of these animals and is advised by AHO to contact her GP.
November 28th: HPA visit and are arranging for X Rays.

December 2009
AHO suggested they take the 'grey area' animals in pairs, starting with those who are either showing signs of illness, or have failed the Gamma IFN blood test.

They begin with 8 animals who had failed the GammaIFN test. All were positive for Tb on PM.

Losses to date 30 - all confirmed TB.
AHO ask to take the entire herd as owner has now lost over half the animals.

This small herd has 22 alpaca left out of 52 animals.
All but one had passed the intradermal skin test in early October.
A male sold from the farm in July has died and PM has confirmed TB. Despite the owner and BAS providing AH with contacts in October – a trace on this sale had not been followed up.
Dec 6th Owner has agreed to let AH take another 5 animals.

The remaining animals testing negative on both blood tests, will be monitired by AHO at 2, 4 and 6 monthly intervals.
The 4 alpaca which gave samples not capable of screen, will be retested.

Losses to date: 30, with 5 booked to go.
To be continued.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

We failed ....

All summer, several contributers to this site have been trying valiantly to collate the figures for the cost to the taxpayer, of testing and removal of bTB positives to the skin test and other assorted toys. While numbers of animals slaughtered are available on the Defra website, (and our trend graphs show just where cattle numbers are likely to be by 2014) other associated costs are not so transparent. So after a lonely trawl, a few Parliamentary Questions were lobbed in the general direction of Hilary Benn, Minister of State for (some) Animal's Health - and his henchmen.

The reason for this is simple. After worshipping the moneylenders, UK plc is broke. And in 2006 a short term fixing tape in the form of tabular valuation was introduced to reduce 'farmers' share of the TB largesse. But within three years, sheer numbers of reactors had outstripped any fiscal advantage. So in the absence of any change of policy, and to go with our trend line graph of the numbers of cattle Defra can expect to cope with, we had intended producing a graph illustrating the sheer bloody waste of money, cost of all this prevarication to the long suffering taxpayer, already reeling under the laxative of 'quantitative easing' to protect the financial sector.

And therein lies is a problem. Answers to our pointed questions, repeated when we really did not believe what we were reading, explained - patiently it has to be said - that 'Compensation' included many other expenses other than monies paid to farmers for reactor cattle. Aye?? That was a surprise - and it takes a lot to surprise us. Such cynicism comes with years of practise, but we digress..

The less-than-transparent figure for 'Compensation' also includes species other than cattle - and there have been a few of those with numbers climbing: "Payments for non-bovine species are included in the total compensation figure for England." Then the writer explained that they were:
" ... unable to pull out an exact figure as our records are not kept in that way. Prior to 2006/07 minimal compensation was paid for other species. Over 2006/07 and 2007/08 a more substantial amount of money was paid out (though under £1million) for camelids."
So the llama and alpaca casualties of 2007, were funded at 'less than £1million? That's like a supermarket offering goods at £99.99 and saying they were 'under £100'. And as the numbers were quite modest, they were expensive lawnmowers then?

As 'other species' are included in the total sum, a straight simple division into the amount paid as 'compensation' by the number of cattle reactors, would not be in any way correct. But it gets worse.

Although veterinary testing costs are collated separately (and in the last couple of years have outstripped 'compensation') we had not realised that the 'accounting' system which Defra operate also bundles all costs of removing the reactor from the farm, getting it through the abattoir and its eventual disposal into that one misleading total.

The minister of State was asked for the costs of:
(a) compensation paid directly to farmers for removal of animals, (b) veterinary tuberculin testing, (c) haulage for removal of animals, (d) abattoir and official veterinary surgeon services in respect of slaughter, (e) on-farm slaughter, (f) disposal and incineration and (g) valuation fees was in respect of the implementation of statutory testing and slaughter under bovine tuberculosis regulations of (i) cattle classed as bovine tuberculosis reactors, inconclusives or dangerous contact animals and (ii) all other mammals (A) between 1986 and 1996 and (B) since 1997. [293860]

Jim Fitzpatrick answered and confirmed an answer which we had already gleaned: that the figure euphemistically labelled 'Compensation' and which is generally accepted as being lobbbed into cattle farmer's pockets, included haulage, valuers fees, disposal of parts not wanted in the food chain - but was net of 'salvage'. Further questions elicited the following reply as to the cost of slaughter v. sales of meat:
Jim Fitzpatrick: No such estimate has been made. For most cattle compulsorily slaughtered on TB control grounds, DEFRA has received a net payment from abattoirs rather than incurred a cost. Meat Hygiene Service officials inspect carcasses of such cattle when slaughtered in licensed abattoirs, a small proportion of TB affected cattle are condemned as unfit for human consumption e.g. if TB lesions are identified in more than one part of the carcase. In such cases DEFRA does makes a payment to the abattoir to cover its disposal costs. It is not possible to provide details of slaughter costs in the form requested: typically an abattoir will receive batches of cattle being slaughtered on disease control grounds rather than single animals—if one (or more) of these animals is condemned, the cost to DEFRA will be offset by the total salvage value received from those passed as fit for human consumption.
So there we have it. A less than transparent method of calculating costs, the general public (and farmers themselves) assuming, quite wrongly, that the published figures for 'Compensation' relate to farmers, when in fact they include many other costs as well. And from abattoirs, no separate credit / debit balances, merely a net figure which was £4.3m last year, for the difference between what they charge Defra for putting cattle through the slaughter line, and the monies obtained for the carcasses. We would say Defra's cost control is as lacking as any effort to stem the tide of infection from a name they dare not speak..

A very rough guide to TB costs, is on the Defra website.
And to really confuse, figures for 'cattle slaughtered' are on a calandar basis (January - December), while associated costs relate to a 'financial year' (March - April)

You really couldn't make it up.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A TB test on 'Countryfile'

See a reasonable overview of the frustration and waste of the non-policy which passes for bTB eradication in this country, on last weekend's episide of the BBC's COUNTRYFILE. Some beautiful in calf holstein heifers, loaded up for slaughter on a nearby dairy farm, with the added comment that over 200 black and white bull calves had been destroyed at birth over this two year herd restriction.

Then a snapshot of a six month 'short interval' herd test on Adam Henson's various rare breed beef stock, revealed four reactors within various groups of cattle roaming 1600 acres. A smart in calf Gloucester cow, and three youngsters including a very scarce White Park calf - a breed which is getting dangerously low in numbers.

If we are being pedantic, it would have been more honest of the BBC to allow Adam the airtime to explain that such a six month SI test follows a period of herd restriction due to a previous bTB breakdown. Thus his euphoria in the early summer, when the programme showed his clear TB test (and thus his ability to trade his stock with pride) was the expected emotional response, when for some little time 'Adam's farm' had been under continuous TB restriction, 60 testing and slaughter. And the further wasting of taxpayers' money..

In the interests of balance, we confidently expect a clip of Oddie / Kidner et al kissing small badgers in a follow up film. And a lot of hot air about vaccinating badgers infected with tuberculosis in hotspot areas such as this, with BCG. Which can be expected to create more jobs, buy more time, solve the TB problem overnight - at least in the eyes of a naive and misinformed public.