Saturday, March 17, 2012

Jobs for the boys

... and girls. Doing what? Vaccinating badgers of course. A very stylish website set up by ex FERA graduates, now seeking employment and decorated with some healthy looking badgers explains:
"In an effort to prevent the spread of disease between cattle, around 25,000 cattle were compulsory slaughtered in the UK in 2010."

They are correct about the UK testing and slaughtering cattle by the shed load, but not the amount. In 2010 England alone slaughtered almost 25,000. But the total for GB, including Wales and Scotland, brought Defra's annual carnage to 32,737 - but let that pass. The website continues:
"To promote a sustainable future for farming and wildlife in the UK, it is widely accepted that we need to address the reservoir of disease in badgers. Badger vaccination can play a role in reducing the overall level of disease and related transmission risk, and also help prevent the spread of disease to new areas."
Can it? Can it really? Or are we getting confused with that mischievous, not to say outrageous headline of November 2010? This is where 262 pre- screened badgers (out of a potential haul of 844) were jabbed to assess the health and safety (to badgers) of BCG. This trial was not to assess efficacy of the vaccine. For that we need to go to this paper, which actually had a look at what happened to their pre-screened badgers which were vaccinated, exposed to m.bovis and then euthanased. At postmortem, all had lesions and all were shedding. Using BCG at 10x the normal strength had a more beneficial effect than the standard rate, except on one poor old brock who died. Not in vain, one hopes?

Our potential jabbers continue, posing the question 'can vaccination work?' and answer their own question, more with hope than accuracy:
"Laboratory and field studies have demonstrated that vaccination of badgers by injection with BCG significantly reduces the progression, severity and excretion of TB infection."
Define significantly? The actual vaccination trial referred to above, achieved a reduction of bacterium shed of 13 percent. Well hallelujah for that. And hard on the heels of that spurious 74% efficacy claim, with no mention of the prescreening of the 844 candidates in the field trial, came the usual Defra fudge "the data should not be used to support this claim." It seems it was then and it is now.

But this week, the three main farming unions of Wales delivered a joint letter to the Welsh Assembly Government, pointing out that despite 'intensive cattle measures', their farmers were losing cattle to TB in increasing numbers. They also reminded their government that the advice on badger vaccination had been updated.
Specifically, in November 2011 a memorandum by those involved in the most recent vaccine trials made it clear that the work to date
“…cannot tell us the degree of vaccine efficacy”; that “A definitive figure for efficacy could only be determined by field-testing the vaccine on a large scale over a long period of time. Several thousand badgers would need to be killed to determine the presence and severity of TB at detailed post-mortem examination”; and that “…we do not know how deployment of the badger vaccine in the field would affect TB incidence in cattle.”
And in the absence of large scale field trials, modelling has been used to assess the possible impact of a vaccination programme. And the best effort of these electronics ...
"... predicted a 9% reduction in confirmed cattle incidences by the end of a five year vaccination operation, and “an overall reduction in confirmed cattle herd breakdowns of 19% over 10 years within the core area, compared with 34% for a cull and 40% for a cull with ring vaccination.”

And finally the cost of this bright idea from Brock Vaccination Ltd? We can only compare with the now defunct Vaccine Deployment Project, which posted a cost of £1,440 / sq km. annually, as badger BCG is a beneficial, ongoing, yearly event.

The operating protocol, if the FERA guidelines are followed, is restrictive, bureaucratic and expensive. Fine if remuneration is drip fed from government, but not so good if farmers are paying and expecting results. After the initial survey and open trap trial run, two nights only are advised and certainly no more than 4 - even if not all, or even none of the target badgers are caught. BCG vaccine is a live attenuated product requiring activating with a liquid solution. But that has to done at the refrigerated container within the vehicle and not trapside. So having inspected the baited traps and said 'good morning' to any occupants, operatives are required to trek back to their 4x4, mix up the required doses [and a few extra] and trek back. Mixed vaccines must be used within 4 hours. The list of 'required clothing' is comprehensive, as are the specialist cages, wickets (for squashing badgers against the side of the cage) animal grade peanuts, treacle and 3-5kg stones. Protective masks and goggles are stipulated when approaching badgers. Perhaps we could fit them cattle too.

Meanwhile NFU newbie, Adam Quinney
has offered the Badger Trust his TB restricted farm to play on, and they've found that catching wild badgers ain't easy.
"We asked the Badger Trust to put their money where their mouth is and, to be fair, they have done a lot of work on the farm. We have both learned a lot, including that catching badgers is not straightforward.”
That predicted benefit (9 percent in 5 years) is revealing, in that the time scale is several badger generations of unscreened, infected animals. The Brock Vaccination site explains that the:
benefits of badger vaccination will be realised over a number of years, it is not a ‘quick fix’ solution, however we believe it is a sustainable one.

The cynical among us might say, sustainable for whom?

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