Saturday, November 03, 2012

Plan B?

We posted a short series of links to various scientific papers on a previous thread, which gave an insight into the background of the non - eradication of tuberculosis in this country. Today, we'll top that up with the recommendations of both Lord Krebs in 1996 and DG SANCO in 2012.

But first a reminder that the intra-dermal skin test is the universally approved test for cattle, world wide. It is the primary choice of the OIE ( Office International des Epizooties )- an intergovernmental organisation which was actually set up in 1924. There are international rules on the eradication of infectious diseases. We expect others to obey them, and we must do so ourselves, or take the consequences. All countries use this test, most with outstanding success. The exception is the UK.

No country in the world has made a dent in eradication of TB in cattle, while leaving a wildlife reservoir to reinfect both them and other mammals. Prior to the Protection of Badgers Act 1972, farmers managed the  badger population, so it incorrect to say that 'not a badger was killed' during the cattle eradication years.  After 1972, all removals for any reason needed a license. PQs confirm that over time, demand for such licenses increased exponentially, indicating an increasing population.
Mr. Paterson: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what estimate she has made of the total population of badgers in the UK; and in which areas the population is greatest. [148650]
Mr. Bradshaw: English Nature advises that there are likely to be in the region of 300,000 to 400,000 badgers in Great Britain. This figure is derived from a National Badger Survey which took place in the mid-1990's.

The survey also reported that there had been a 77 per cent. increase in badger numbers between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. The increasing number of applications received by Defra for licences under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 (up 50 per cent. since 1999) suggest that this trend is continuing. 
So plenty of badgers then.

We also note that the mantra of badger vaccination appears to have taken on a life of its own. It is now variously quoted by the Brian May, the Badger Trust, Wildlife Trusts, National Trusts and others, who trust that a single jab gives protection for life. It may give FERA employees a job for life, but it most certainly does not give that much protection, even on pre-screened badgers. We gave links to relevant scientific papers in this posting. And from those, anyone with half a brain can see that the jab was trialled on badgers pre-screened for tuberculosis, and it has to be repeated annually. If it has any effect at all, it may reduce lesions and thus bacterial spread over many, many generations.

Used as proposed by its followers, it is as bigger distraction as the RBCT.  But the licensing of this product may offer a clue: efficacy data were not produced. Badger BCG has a 'Limited Marketing Authority' (LMA) license. This means that any claims to its effectiveness are 'the responsibility of the end user'. They have not been independently verified. It may also be illegal under OIE rules on the eradication of tuberculosis, which forbid treatment or vaccination of any animal.

Also airbrushed are Defra's belated comment of its headline "74 per cent" efficacy for the product: 'The data should not be used to support the claim'. Former minister Jim Paice described claims for this product as: 'unhelpful' and 'misleading'. It doesn't alter the fact that a lot of people believe them.

So what have we got to work with to turn this charade around? The body which oversees the eradication of tuberculosis in the European Union is DG SANCO. Their latest blast at Defra this summer included the following statement:
The TB eradication programme needs continuity and it must be recognised that success will be slow and perhaps hard to distinguish at first. There is a lot of skill and knowledge among the veterinary authorities and they must be allowed time to use it."
We would agree. Rather than being the engine drivers of the trains which feed Defra's mincing machines for tuberculosis casualties, why not use the information that AHVLA staff collect when investigating a breakdown? Each breakdown is carefully mapped as to where, when and how exposure occurred. But that information is gathering dust.

So our suggestion is to use it to map the location of all reactors over a wide area. Any variety of reactors. There are plenty to choose from now. Cattle, badgers, alpacas, sheep, pigs, goats, cats and dogs. Then do a overlay field map of badger setts and their tracks, using fluorescent dust or coloured bait to track the movements over land occupied by these reactors.

Confirm the tracked locations of a) clean setts and b) infected ones by the now validated PCR test. And we do not want to hear that this technology does not work. It does and it is being used commercially for other bacteria in the M. tuberculosis complex  group by AHVLA. M. avium paratuberculosis  ( Johnes disease) samples are charged at around £26 for 5 pooled samples.

Get positive. This will work. It is already giving very encouraging interim results on alpaca samples.

But this is  Defra's dilemma; and the real stumbling block to progress. Neither Defra, FERA nor Natural England  want to cull badgers: any badgers, infected or not. Whether that is misplaced sentimentality or the worship of a particularly lucrative cash cow, is debatable. But when infected setts are identified, and litigation becomes a real threat, then action will have to be taken and taken quickly.

Professor (Lord) Krebs has been quite vocal recently, as have many more the Magic Circle involved in keeping this whole miserable shebang rolling. Their arguments echo Bourne's in 1997, 'culling badgers as done in the RBCT' is not the way forward. Krebs and co rephrased this with  'culling as planned'.

So what is the way forward? In his 1996 Plan, not only Krebs but co-authors Donelley and Woodroffe of the ISG clan, proposed and recommended the use of PCR. (p 131):
7.9.5 We also recommend that the scope for using modern DNA amplification techniques, such as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), for diagnosis should be further explored. The PCR is quicker than microbial culture and can detect the remnants of dead bacteria in addition to living organisms. If sufficiently sensitive, we see two applications for such a test.
(i) It could provide rapid screening of samples from badger carcases. We suggest MAFF should consider whether this might be an alternative to culture. We estimate that existing assays could be optimised within one to two years.
(ii) MAFF could monitor the presence and distribution of infection by environmental sampling of areas used by badgers.
They most certainly could, but Defra have resisted this opportunity for the last 15 years, leading to a recent PCR abattoir screening of sheep picking up to 50 per cent infection. Do we really want to screw lamb exports as well as trade in all cattle products and alpacas?

With this totally predictable cock up, we have a hiatus. A chance to do a rethink of this modern day carnage by computer, which followed a politically motivated Son-of-Krebs, designed to fail from day one. Just follow the trail:

The crucial original population estimate (done by FERA) early this spring was based on the RBCT figures 16 years ago, other area densities and a small sample of the pilot areas. This amalgam figure was given to the NFU as the base line figure for the areas. And it was much too low.

From that, everything else flowed. Number of badgers, numbers of shooters and numbers of bullets, disposal and everything else. And thus cost. The cost was all to be collected from the farmers + 25 per cent contingency fund.

The culling protocol was set up by NE to be so bureaucratically complicated as to fail, thus no-one (except the NFU) expected it to get off the ground or to survive a Judicial Review. But it did, hence the frantic last minute scramble to count badgers living in Glos and Somerset instead of elsewhere, some 16 years ago.

And therein came the problem. There were up to 60 per cent more than calculated, so 60 per cent more cost, and to cap it all, Natural England announced that they wanted 80 per cent shot on 42 nights, to achieve the original target of 70 per cent. You really couldn't make it up.

So we have a toxic mix of a quango which doesn't want to cull any badgers at all, in charge of a politically driven mathematical model of Pythagorus and bingo. A PR disaster all round and the truth the biggest casualty of all.

So, to summarise: we propose a structured investigation using veterinary expertise, to locate clean setts, and protect them. This going hand in hand with seeking out infected badgers, using cutting edge technology and reactor mapping. There should be complete removal of these groups and only these, to halt the carnage ripping through our countryside. Fewer badgers would be culled and only infectious ones; clean ones protected and nurtured with more space. What's not to like?

 If we lose this opportunity, the only winner is this vicious and almost indestructible bacteria - Tuberculosis.

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