Sunday, September 29, 2013

Zoonotic tuberculosis - playing with human health?

While Defra and the Badger Trust play mind games with the disease known as 'bovine' tuberculosis, the reason for its eradication was made only too clear in yesterday's Times newspaper.(link)

Unfortunately, this article by Dominic Kennedy, is hidden behind a pay wall, but briefly he has picked up on a increase in tuberculosis, possibly linked to pets and companion mammals, in people under 40 who would have been born after the cattle TB eradication sweep of the 1950s and 60s, and also the widespread pasteurisation of milk

Mr. Kennedy quotes a consultant from Liverpool's Heart and Chest Hospital, Prof. Peter Davies, who explains:
" The more TB there is in the world the more the chances are that it's going to spread. This is why we are trying to control TB in cows and other animals. There have been cases in which pets and humans have been infected with the same strain. One possible explanation for the increase is that there is more transmission from wildlife to humans."
Almost a decade ago, the then Chief Medical Officer remarked that if 'tuberculosis is being controlled successfully, there will be a fall in cases of bovine TB involving under-35s born in the UK.'

But Mr. Kennedy reports that statistics from Public Health England,(link) (formerly the Health Protection Agency) suggest that Britain has failed to get the disease under control, even though their 2012 report states:
The number and proportion of cases due to M.bovis continues to be very low, suggesting that the epidemic in bovine and non- bovine animals is not spilling significantly into the human population.
They could have added 'yet' to that rather comforting statement. But as Z Tuberculosis is a slow burn disease, exposure now is unlikely to become a full blown disease problem for several years, if not decades.

Mr. Kennedy points out that PHE's statistics for m.bovis infections, show that only 5 cases in British-born people in the under 35 age group had been recorded for the entire period 2000-2005, but they now confirm 23 infections in British-born people under the age of 45 between 2005 and 2012.

But we learn that many farmers with lesioned reactors in cattle, alpacas, sheep, deer or pigs have not been contacted by PHE for screening at all. And if they have, and they have had positive blood tests (rather than just chest X rays, which may well prove to be a bit late) they are counted as 'monitored' or 'watched' but not 'positive' to m.bovis in these stats.
So very similar to our own Defra's TB in 'other species' statistics, only a positive culture sample (not bloods) is counted?

Also there appears to be a hike in cases labelled m.tuberculosis complex in the published PHE data. This is the overall term for bacteria of that type, including but not exclusively m.bovis. So while drug therapy is tweaked to accommodate m.bovis, the data may not be altered. The PHE report explains:
Among all culture confirmed cases, 97.1% (5,048/5,200) were identified with Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection; 1.0% (54) with Mycobacterium africanum; 0.7% (35) with Mycobacterium bovis; and 1.2% (63) with Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex (MTBC) bacteria which were not further differentiated.

Historically the passage of data between AHVLA and Public Health is a one way street. AHVLA have to report cases of TB lesioned animals to PHE, but very rarely is contact made with AHVLA to spoligotype the strain found in humans and run it's cause to ground.

And that is incredibly frustrating for the staff at AHVLA, who have to jump through all kinds of data protection hoops to share these vital communications.

 Mr. Kennedy's story has details about how the disease has affected Dianne Summers (link), whose story we have explored many times.

Public Health England still quantify 'risk' to zTuberculosis as exposure to 'unpasteurised milk, foreign travel, drugs and inhabiting homeless shelters'. But exposure to the increasing amount of bacteria from ‘environmental’ sources is an unknown quantity. Neither Dianne Summers nor her alpacas have been exposed to any of PHE's list of ‘risk’ opportunities, but the alpacas are dead and Dianne has z Tuberculosis.

What is thought to be the first case of zTuberculosis as an  occupational disease (link) was reported at an inquest this year. This was thought to be a case of recent exposure in an abattoir worker and farmer from Uttoxeter. It is not thought that Mr. Sargeant ticked any of PHE's boxes for 'risk' either.

And finally, we would also remind readers of  this case (link) of a young Cornish woman, her child and her dog, all infected by the same strain of zTuberculosis in 2007. The source was thought to be badgers which inhabited the bottom of her garden.

And again, there is no box on PHE's risk form which would generate a tick for that.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Honouring the Lie

The expression 'honouring the lie' was used by a friend a few weeks ago, and it ties in very neatly with the extraordinary claims surrounding widespread vaccination of badgers with BCG.

We won't repeat ourselves with the background to all this, which started here (link) in 2010 with an amazing headline from the BBC.
Progress of a sort was made last year (link) and the '74 per cent' was quietly reduced to 54 percent. A fair drop. And remember that this was on pre screened, non infected badgers. Not an indiscriminately trapped hotchpotch with just under half (FERA's figure for badgers excluded from the headline 844) already positive to three diagnostic tests for zoonotic Tuberculosis.

 Unfortunately those headlines in 2010 are still wafting around, still stacked as 'science', still believed,(link) and used to hoover up funds. So if they don't believe us, and think vaccinating badgers for zTB is like vaccinating children for measles, perhaps the Wildlife Trusts should take note of the EFRA Comittee's report on vaccination published earlier this year (link) where they spell out some of the points which we have made:
45. As with the 2010 study, the higher figure from the 2012 work (76%) is widely quoted[74] despite the more sensitive and specific test showing the effect of vaccination was to reduce the risk of a positive result to the lower figure of 54%. In order for vaccination to be considered part of a strategy to eradicate bovine TB we first need to establish what level of efficacy can be expected.
Precisely. To license this product, no efficacy data was produced: so it's no use the little poppets waving their collecting boxes and bleating that 'If it didn't work, it wouldn't have a license'. It does. But BCG for badgers  has a ' Limited Marketing Authority'  (LMA) license only. Which in the Veterinary Medicines Directorate's  (VMD) own words, means that "efficacy data is limited" and "the applicant must demonstrate the benefits outweigh any risks".

Crucially VMD state:
"Decisions as to whether the vaccine is suitable for use in a particular situation are outside the VMD's statutory role [snip ] and are the responsibility of the end user".
But back to the EFRA report which echoes those eerily silent squeaks from Defra when the headline of '74 per cent ' was launched, and in the two years since then. The EFRA report notes, amongst other points, that launching BCG into an endemically infected population of badgers, (as is being done now), may just make things a whole lot worse for many years longer:
62. [] However, it remains the case that vaccination does not remove and has no effect on already-infected badgers. Indeed, mitigating the effect of the disease through vaccination may increase the survival time of carriers and secretors.[98]
This nails the misconception that a single jab of BCG vaccine will prevent tuberculosis in the first place. It will not. If it works at all, and in almost half the pre screened candidates vaccinated with BCG, the vaccine does not work, it reduces the size of lesions and thus some of the bacterial spread from them.
But tuberculosis is still there. So badgers will have a little bit of 'tuberculosis' - as in be a 'a little bit pregnant'? They still have lesions and still spread bacteria. As EFRA correctly point out.
63. Benefits from vaccination would be expected to accrue incrementally over several years as the number of badgers vaccinated increased and infected badgers died off. Although, according to Defra, most individual badgers already infected with bovine TB will die off within five years, it is likely that annual vaccination would need to last many years more to be successful.[99]

For vaccination to produce herd immunity, a significant proportion of badgers need to be captured. The Carter et al research suggested that vaccination reduced the risk of a positive test result by 54% in vaccinated individuals.

However, if only 50% of badgers were trapped and vaccinated with a vaccine that is 54% effective then just a quarter of the badger population would have a reduced risk of infection - and that is assuming that those vaccinated were not already infected.

The more endemic the disease the more difficult it will be and the longer it will take for vaccination to be effective.[100]
Quite. A lot of 'ifs' there, and many assumptions of current disease status, trapping rates and vaccine efficacy.
So why are the Wildlife Trusts, Badger Trusts and Uncle Tom Cobley Brian May and all,  still ratting on that indiscriminate vaccination of an endemically infected badger population, will zap zoonotic Tuberculosis in the population, within 5 years - for ever?

And have you noticed that all this raises it's head in the middle of yet another consultation (link) on culling badgers?

And that really is 'Honouring the Lie'.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Playing Mind Games?

This post has been updated. Please see link at the end.

We import much from America but one such product, we could do without. Arriving during the 'cold war' in the 1950s and known as the DELPHI technique, it cleverly drives a meeting to pre-determined end. Once you've been to a meeting set up under these conditions, the symptoms are quite recognisable. They are a method of achieving a consensus for what Government want to achieve without actually bothering to ask the participants.

Group gatherings, by invitation only, are arranged and selected participants invited to “help determine” policy in one field or another. These valuable people are supposedly there to provide input which will then help officials make final decisions. Sounds a ground breaking democratic system doesn’t it? Localism in action.

Unfortunately, surface appearances are often deceiving and the 'facilitator' who steers and often records the meeting,  while pretending to be helpful, neutral, non directing and friendly, is actually there for exactly the opposite reason. To see that the conclusions reached during the meeting are in accord with a plan already decided upon by those who called the meeting. In this case Defra.

 A series of such meetings have been arranged to 'plan' Defra's next zTB strategy, presently out for a 'consultation' and which is due to end on September 26th. These gatherings are interesting, if only to see which way the apparatchiks who run Defra, plan to drive their next round of cattle measures carnage forward. And it isn't pretty.

In fact it is brutal, suicidal and with no reference to historical failures, which although casually mentioned, lacked a fuller explanation as to why they didn't work. You'll find that here where we discuss what has become known as the 'Downie era' in the Republic of Ireland.

The meetings are held under Chatham House rules, so we can't say who said what - just the gist of the discussion which we list below.

* Vets present pointed out that although 'lay testing' was up for discussion, as far as they were concerned, that subject was a 'done deal' with tenders already out. So not so much a consultation as a mission statement?

* As more and more responsibility for dealing with past governments' prevarication over this disease (Zoonotic tuberculosis) appears to be passed to cattle farmers, the message was pretty clear. No. Not until wildlife control is a key part of any strategy.

* The thorny question of cost, which Defra want to offload too, was neatly sidestepped as "hugely important", "will be discussed in detail at the end" .... and then ooops, 30 seconds remaining, we've run out of time. Really?  What a surprise. So who is willing to pay? We don't know, but it is not the Department which signed up to an International TB Eradication Strategy, and failed to carry it out..

* Compensation for reactors was something Defra make no secret of wanting to reduce: but if there were less reactors the question would not arise of course. Insurance is still a big no say the loss adjusters. This will continue while levels remain so high and are hemorrhaging the mainly  profitable farm insurance budget. And that is both for farmer's individual insurance, or some type of mutual scheme black hole.

* The New Zealand model appears to take a lot of time and space in the Consultation documentation, and was discussed pushed at these meetings. But which one? There have been two, and we take a lead here from TB who reveals that the Kiwi's second effort appeared much more successful than the earlier one. And it is the earlier one, they point out, which Defra are following.

* Wildlife management, particularly of badgers in the European Union member states, was mentioned. But not how it is achieved.  And there was a predictable slippage of the 'V' word into most Defra-ese, at every opportunity. Our views on the use of BCG vaccination of either badgers or cattle are well known so we won't repeat them. Suffice to say we've read the paperwork, seen that derogatory 'Pump Priming' phrase, (used regularly to get farmers to accept the 'V' concept) and have experienced the 'hard sell' of this idea, with no acceptance that the reality is not living up to that dream.

 * Many participants wanted a more targeted cull of badgers, using information already gathered by AHVLA at the beginning of a breakdown. Also mentioned was the PR catastrophe of a widespread indiscriminate cull, which it was said, had been appallingly handled.

* And the main conclusion was the lack of trust both farmers and vets now had in Defra; without which no policy can be operated at all.

Brutal, top down cattle measures have failed in the past, and they look set to be introduced again, with no noticeable effect when the cause of the problem is still roaming free. The difference now is that farmers will be asked to pay for them..

 This chart was first aired at the Killarney Epidemiological Conference, and shows the AHVLA risk assessments results drawn from new confirmed breakdowns in Devon, during 2004.

These AHVLA maps and their vital information  remain unused.

Responsible for those new breakdowns were not 30 per cent badgers, not even 50 per cent badgers as is being bandied about by successive mathematical modelers and the ISG. No less than 76 per cent of those breakdowns were identified as being caused by badgers and only 8 per cent purchased cattle. Unknown original accounted for 16 per cent of breakdowns.

So, why are Defra adding extra goldplating to the European Union's already brutal cattle measures?

Update: From the Worcester meeting, Alistair Driver reports similar comments to those expressed above, including that lack of 'trust' in Defra. And particularly the absolute need for realistic measures involving wildlife before any more pain is heaped on beleaguered cattle farmers. Full article with contributor comments is on this link.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

His master's voice (2)

We've mentioned before, the all pervasive influence of the European Union on agricultural policies in Great Britain. And once again, it has stamped its collective foot, this time on the thorny subject of zoonotic tuberculosis.

Comments Instructions from DG SANCO who oversee what AHVLA are up to, while spending wasting European cash, last year  included this blast :
"It is however of utmost importance that there is a political consensus and commitment to long-term strategies to combat TB in badgers as well as in cattle.

The Welsh eradication plan will lose some impetus as badger culling will now be replaced with badger vaccination. This was not part of the original strategy that consisted of a comprehensive plan that has now been disrupted.

There is no scientific evidence to demonstrate that badger vaccination will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. However there is considerable evidence to support the removal of badgers in order to improve the TB status of both badgers and cattle.

UK politicians must accept their responsibility to their own farmers and taxpayers as well as to the rest of the EU and commit to a long-term strategy that is not dependent on elections."

.. which was pretty encouraging. But in order to collect those Euros, certain conditions are set down for our current Secretary of State, Owen Paterson MP.

These are detailed in this letter, and go a long way to explaining AHVLA's  latest foray suicide mission of GB's vaccinating cattle against bTB.

 The letter initially unravels even more of the allowances made in the recent past, which have enabled farms under TB restriction to continue trading, thus allowing successive governments to do nothing to prevent reinfection from diseased badgers. It explains:
In the past four years the Commission has allocated considerable funds to support the UK bTB programmes (EUR 116,3 Million in total).

We therefore expect significant improvements in the epidemiological situation in 2013 that show efficient use of Union funds. This is absolutely necessary in view of a further renewal of the EU financial support to this programme.
So there we have it. He who pays the piper is entitled to expect results a tune?

As well as the continual lock down of all farms under TB restriction with few outlets for live cattle but an increasing pile of dead ones, the EU has instructed that within a timeline of 10 years, cattle vaccines be trialled.

This is explained, with expected dates, in Annex 1, p4 of a letter to Mr. Paterson earlier this year:
In order to provide answers to the still open scientific questions on bTB vaccination, substantial experimental research and large scale long lasting (possibly 2-5 years) trials, also under EU field conditions, are needed [start 2013, end 2015-2016].
The EU wish list goes on to detail the need for an extremely sensitive DIVA test, which  must also be developed alongside any vaccine. This is to differentiate between vaccinated animals and those with actual exposure to tuberculosis. Also mentioned are the hurdles of international trade, should the resultant product ever be granted a full VMD (Veterinary Medicines Directorate) license. The end date is 2023 / 25.

The timing of this announcement, smack in the middle of yet another Consultation Mission statement on how AHVLA propose to tackle z TB (in cattle, if not in anything else) has echoes of  FERA's 2010 mischief
And understandably, AHVLA are more than enthusiastic about another 10 year job creation programme. Even if it is financed by the EU in order to gain more cash with which to shoot more cattle, alpacas, sheep, pigs, and deer - but very few badgers.

 But we remember AHVLA's last efforts to torture this 85 year old product known as BCG into a usable vaccine for cattle. A process first tried over 50 years ago.

 Published last year AHVLA's  Project SE3227 failed to prevent bTB in naturally infected animals in the UK.  So, as AHVLA  instructed by their paymasters, rush off to get this project started, has something dramatic happened to BCG vaccine development in the very few months since their last effort?

'May' be divine intervention by the good Doctor has had a hand in its refinement in these last months, along with that of a 100 percent reliable DIVA test.
And ultimately, will this product ever be fully licensed or prevent inevitable trade bans?

In the face of the enormous challenge faced by our sentinel tested cattle from bacteria left by infected and infectious badgers, answers to all the above are 'unlikely' - which is a polite word for 'in your dreams'.

We see cattle vaccines as a very unfortunate red herring, as are BCG vaccines for badgers, where the very word 'vaccine' appears confused with 'immunity' - regardless of the candidate and in particular, regardless of the efficacy of the vaccine.
When the naive are being sold the concept of 'immunity within 5 years' regardless of a candidate's disease status at the start of the programme, and using a vaccine which has submitted no data for efficacy as part of its licensing procedure, the following questions were asked by an experienced and published epidemiologist:
Where is the actual evidence for any of this statement? [All clear in 5 years]

There are a number of assumptions here, some of which are very dubious.
The percentage necessary to control an outbreak of disease is the percentage immune, not vaccinated. We don't know how many badgers will actually become immune.

None of those that are infected will. Any cubs born to an excreting (not necessarily sick) badger may well become infected before they even leave the sett.Vaccination will not be effective at this stage, so how is eradication in 4 or 5 years going to happen?"

It isn't. A modeled benefit of just 9 per cent after 5 years was accepted for the Welsh IAA badger vaccine project.  So while our dead cattle mountain continues to grow, a whole shoal of these red herrings are floating around, ready to swim into the nets of the gullible.
Our industry deserves better.


Monday, September 02, 2013

Booker on Badgers

Sunday's Telegraph carried Christopher Booker's article on the effect too many badgers have on other small mammals and birds. Earthworms may be their food of choice, but if it's too wet, too dry or too crowded, what then? Badger numbers have exploded and their success - or that of their protectors - has brought about carnage to other species and a  predictable parallel explosion in the disease which is endemic in them: Zoonotic tuberculosis.

While pushing ahead with the two small pilot badger culls, to ascertain whether free shooting of a nocturnal, subterranean, group mammal is 'humane', Booker points out that Owen Paterson has other plans for future control measures:
"This, of course, is why he repeatedly insists that the ultimate answer must lie, first, in developing much more efficient DNA testing to identify those badger setts which are genuinely infected; and, second, in looking at other methods of killing infected badgers more efficiently and humanely.

No one would argue for a return to the use of cyanide poisoning, banned in 1984 because it resulted in badgers dying a death just as unpleasant in its own way as that from TB itself. But the "euthanasia" of infected setts by gassing should not be ruled out (and could arguably be permitted under both the Bern Convention and the 1996 Protection of Badgers Act, which both allow the killing of sick animals for humane reasons).

One way or another, this disease has brought about a catastrophe for which a solution must be found."

A catastrophe is a very good description.

And the ecological imbalance which too many badgers cause,  we explored this in this posting and this one and also here, with a quote from an article published in the Journal of Zoology on the survival prospects for hedgehogs.

And on Mr. Paterson's future plans to specifically target sources of Zoonotic tuberculosis, as opposed to population reduction aka the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial, our thoughts can be found in this posting.

 Here is Christopher Booker's full article.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Go compare ....

.... the actions of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' post infection treatment of a farm where all the cattle were slaughtered due to Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) and one where cattle are slaughtered out to control Bovine (Zoonotic) Tuberculosis (zTB).

More and more herds of cattle, alpacas and farmed deer are falling into the latter category. It is a drastic step, but if cattle or 'other species' reactors reach a level where infection has been such that the rest of the herd is likely to become reactors at the next test, then permission is sought from Defra to 'depopulate'. Which is a comforting word for slaughtering the lot.

We told the story of one such cattle herd, in this harrowing tale, and followed it up with the story of their restocking in this post.  But only now, five long months after the loss of their pedigree dairy herd, are Louis and Gillian Bothwell able to reflect on the cost of this traumatic exercise. And the comparison to an Defra / AHVLA instigated herd 'depopulation' due to a non zoonotic virus is staggering.

During the carnage of FMD, farmers received a valuation for their animals which reflected loss of production too. Some were also given the opportunity of doing Cleansing and Disinfecting (C&D) work themselves, under supervision: all this to keep the rural economy alive until farms were able to restock. The going rate was over twice the minimum wage at the time. If farmers didn't choose to do the work, Defra sent in teams to do it for them. And only when they were sure that no trace of the FMD virus was left to reinfect incoming stock, was the farm given the all clear to buy in cattle again. Thus taxpayer's investment was protected and not frittered away in repeated recrudescence of disease.

After a herd depopulation for zTuberculosis, a bacteria which not only affects but can kill humans, the compensation money for reactor cattle is a meagre, average, tabular basic, which is not enough to buy even 3/4 of good pedigree cow. The farm then receives a 'wish list' from Defra / AHVLA of all the work which must be done before restocking is allowed under license. And all this work is at the farmer's own expense. And of course, after decades of non-policy and hefty claims, very few of us are able to obtain insurance, at any price.

Thus a farm depopulated for zoonotic tuberculosis faces several months with no income, compounded with loans and mortgages still to service and an AHVLA shopping list of biosecurity 'must do' jobs to prevent badger access to buildings and feed stores. But not a goddam thing is aimed at the carriers of the bacterium which caused the havoc in the first place and are likely to still be roaming the grassland they call 'home'..

How can that be good value for taxpayers?

And is it survivable for any business, let alone a fledgling one, deeply committed having 'invested for the long term' in British agriculture?

This is the milking parlour at the Bothwell's Staffordshire farm, and this week they updated their story to Farmers Guardian's political editor, Alistair Driver.

 A year ago the Bothwells were full of hope. They had invested £500,000 in upgrading their Staffordshire dairy unit and were pouring their heart and soul into building the business. “We were just the right age to do it. We had our own heifers coming in. We were getting where we wanted to be. But this has completely shattered everything,” Gillian Bothwell said.

Describing the nightmare, her story continues:
The financial toll is huge on the family, already in excess of £100,000 and counting, after more than three months without a milk cheque, preceded by falling yields, plus the cost of getting the farm back into a condition to re-stock. So how do you cope with a young family of three boys without any income for three months?
“All the time you are living with this shadow over you, worrying about what is going to happen,” Gillian said. And Louis points out that while still under TB restriction, they are unable to sell calves not needed for herd replacements and  accommodation is getting crowded.
"We have got 40 calves which need to be fed, no money coming in and we can’t sell them. Winter is coming and we are not going to have enough room,” Louis said.
While the new dairy herd is mainly kept inside 24/7 as AHVLA instructed (they did allow limited grazing between 10 and 3 when no badgers were thought to be about - no comments from us about that daft idea) after two clear tests on their remaining youngstock, (who were grazing outside) the Bothwell's July test revealed six reactors in these youngsters. And knowing what we (and AHVLA if they care to read up on it) do know about the survival of m.bovis in the lea of hedges, away from a couple of hours of direct UV light, the advice given to the Bothwells was crackers. Stark staring bloody mad.

 The badgers which caused that huge infection and 97 reactors last autumn and led to the slaughter of 147 prime pedigree holsteins, are still there. Many will be still infected. Those that are have not miraculously recovered, died or emigrated. And either they or the detritus they leave behind will infect these cattle again. And again and again...

And so to go back to our original point: the restocking protocol is a starkly different scenario when herds are slaughtered out for a non zoonotic animal virus, from that experienced by cattle farmers who have the misfortune to share cattle grazing with tuberculous badgers and lose a herd.

 And that is very, very wrong from every possible angle.