Background into the Review of Bovine Tuberculosis

1. Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) is an infectious bacterial disease of a wide range of mammals, including cattle, wildlife and humans. Clinical disease in cattle is chronic, debilitating, and treatment is difficult. Bovine TB is a very complex and multi-factorial disease that remains one of the most difficult animal health problems in these islands. Even though the disease has been the subject of detailed scientific research over many decades there remain many unknowns about this disease.

2. Eradication of bTB in cattle is unlikely to be through the total biological extinction of the organism, but rather through the reduction in the population to a level where it is insignificant in effect. This may be achieved by testing and removing animals already infected in a population, and by reducing the risks of other animals becoming infected through, for example, biosecurity measures to reduce the risk of bovine TB being introduced and spread within herds.

3. A statutory TB programme has been operating here since 1959.  TB controls are required by EU Commission legislation including the European Trade Directive (EU Directive 64/432).  Details of the history and configuration of our statutory TB controls and how they are operated here are contained in the draft NI TB Eradication Plan 2013, which has recently been submitted to the EU Commission for consideration.  A copy is attached at Annex A.

4. TB disease levels in cattle in NI have fallen considerably since the introduction of the statutory disease controls and more recently since a relative peak of 10.21% in February 2003 following a suspension of herd testing during the FMD outbreak in 2001.  Steady progress was made since then, with the herd incidence being reduced to 4.99% by 31 August 2011.  It is therefore extremely disappointing to note the recent rise in TB herd incidence to 6.51% at 28 February 2012.  Graphs showing the NI TB Herd and Animal Incidence levels are attached at Annex B

5. While it is usual to see an increase in the number of reactors over the winter months when more herd testing is completed, the increase in the number of new reactor herds since September 2011 has been higher than anticipated, especially when compared with 2010.  There is no obvious reason for this increase. There has been no change made to the TB programme since January 2010, when the removal of animals as reactors that are inconclusive at second consecutive test was introduced. Our Veterinary Epidemiologists have been investigating the disease pattern and DARD’s Veterinary Service has held a number of meetings to identify possible causes.  Initial analysis shows that the increase is not the result of large scale breakdowns in a particular area of NI, but a general rise in most – but not all – areas.  We will continue to monitor the situation to seek to establish if the increase represents a fundamental change in the relatively level trend that the incidence has followed since 2007, to understand what is driving the change and to counter it. 

6. DARD remains committed to reducing and ultimately eradicating TB in cattle here. 

Progress/Implementation of 2009 PAC Recommendations

7. The NI Audit Office (NIAO) published its Report on The Control of Bovine Tuberculosis in NI on 18 March 2009.  The Report examined the progress DARD had made on the control of bovine TB following the last examination carried out by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) at Westminster in 1993-94.  The PAC hearing to consider the NIAO report took place on 26 March 2009 and their report was published on 29 June 2009.  The Memorandum of Reply was laid before the NI Assembly on 16 September 2009.

8. Following the PAC report, DARD has conducted a very significant programme of work to improve upon various parts of the TB Eradication Programme.  A summary of progress on the PAC recommendations is attached at Annex C.

TB Eradication Programme

9. The fundamental principles of bTB intervention in cattle centres on the detection of diseased or high-risk animals; the compulsory removal of those animals from their herd of origin to slaughter; and the restriction of movements of cattle from infected herds until they are tested clear.

10. The current DARD bTB Eradication Programme involves regulation of cattle movements, compulsory annual testing of all cattle herds using the Single Comparative Intradermal Tuberculin Test (SCITT) – a skin test - in line with EU Directive 64/432, removal of animals that give a positive reaction to the skin test, and tracing and testing of contacts.  It also involves routine abattoir surveillance of all slaughtered bovines. Use of gamma interferon blood testing as a complementary test may be deployed in some circumstances.

11. Where bovine tuberculosis is detected in a herd, valuation and removal of reactors to slaughter is actioned with compensation payable to the farmer. Live animal movement restrictions and increased frequency of testing is implemented until the herd tests clear of disease. 

12. Following a confirmed TB breakdown, adjoining farmers are alerted and their herds may be allocated a contiguous risk herd test. Cattle which have left a herd prior to infection being found are traced, placed under movement restriction and tested.  If it is not possible to test the traced animal then a herd level test is considered in the recipient herd.  Where relevant, the herds from which a TB reactor has originated or moved through are tested.  A more detailed breakdown of the testing/ movement/ compensation procedures is provided at Annex D

13. A graph detailing the costs of the TB programme is provided at Annex E.

DARD Strategy for the Reduction and Eradication of bTB

14. DARD annually seeks, and has gained, EU Commission approval for each of the NI 2010, 2011 and 2012 bovine TB Eradication Plans. This means we are able to secure some £4-£5 million per year co-funding from the EU Veterinary Fund.   

15. Considerable work has been undertaken to enhance the TB eradication programme in recent years:

  • From 1 January 2010 those cattle that give an inconclusive result to a second consecutive bovine TB test are removed as reactors. DARD’s delivery of the TB programme has been improved through monitoring Key Performance Indicators.
  • The testing process has been improved by better supervision of and communications with Private Veterinary Practitioners (PVPs).
  • We are reviewing the way we use the gamma interferon blood test in the TB programme to ensure we are making the best use of it.
  • From 1 December 2010, we use DNA identity tags on reactors to help reduce the potential for fraudulent animal substitution between the time of animal valuation and slaughter.
  • DNA tagging will progressively be applied at the earlier stage when a reactor is identified.
  • We are funding local TB and wildlife research and studies.
  • We continue to learn from the research experiences of other regions.

16. Our TB eradication plan is vital to supporting NI’s £1,000 million plus export dependant trade in livestock and livestock products.  At any time over 90% of herds in NI are able to participate fully in the export trade because of this.

Bio Security

17. As TB is an infectious disease observing good practice with regard to bio-security is key to preventing re-infection. 

18. DARD issues advice on how farmers can help to protect their herd from TB. This includes the practical steps farmers can take to reduce the contact between their cattle and other cattle; and between cattle and badgers. In every herd breakdown a Veterinary Officer will give biosecurity advice and a copy of the “TB in Your Herd” booklet is issued (copy attached at Annex F).  

19. The Bio-security Code for NI farms, which was drafted jointly with industry representative organisations, outlines the actions which should be taken at the farm-gate and on the farm and emphasises how farmers and those who keep animals can minimise the risks to their stock.  The “Bio-security Code for NI Farms is attached at Annex G.

20. DARD has commissioned a TB Bio-security Study aimed at determining if there are any differences in the characteristics of herds that have recently had a TB breakdown against those that have had no recent history of a breakdown.  The results are expected later in 2012. (More detail is available on the DARD website).

Vaccination

21. Vaccination of cattle against bTB is currently prohibited by Council Directive 64/432.  However, Defra has invested considerable research funding towards the development of a viable cattle vaccine.  While indications are positive at laboratory level, much will depend on successful trialling in field conditions; obtaining the necessary vaccine licences; approval of the EU Commission; and securing agreement of the authorities in export markets. 

22. There continues to be considerable work in these islands in relation to developing a vaccine for badgers against bTB.  An injectable badger vaccine has been licensed for use in the UK.  The development of an oral bait vaccine for badgers is still under development.  Badger vaccination is currently being field trialled in the south of Ireland and in Britain.  DARD continues to maintain contact with this on-going work to develop a vaccine for badgers.

23. DARD is hosting an International Vaccination Scientific Experts’ Symposium during May 2012.  The symposium is to assess current knowledge and scope whether badger vaccination offers a practical option.  The outcomes of this symposium will help inform future policy.

Research into bTB

24. TB is a very complex disease.  As indicated in the Programme for Government, we have secured £4 million in the DARD budget to undertake a programme of TB and wildlife research and studies to help ensure we have an evidence based TB Eradication Programme. Literature Reviews have been conducted in relation to cattle and badger TB tests, TB transmission between cattle and between badgers and cattle, and in relation to badger vaccination.  We have also engaged with industry and wider stakeholders to help us identify and refine our TB evidence needs and priorities.

25. A summary of the bTB research projects undertaken, underway and planned, is attached at Annex H

Dealing with TB in Wildlife

26. While it is established that there is a link between TB in badgers and TB in cattle, the scientific evidence from Britain and the south of Ireland around the impact of the removal of badgers on TB in cattle is complex.  In GB culling has led to a reduction of TB in the cull area but a perturbation effect is believed to have led to an increase in TB outside the area. 

27. An outline of the TB programmes in operation in England, Scotland, Wales, and the ROI and their respective approaches to the wildlife issues is available in ‘Bovine TB – comparative models for compensation and eradication/control’ which was published by RaISE in November 2011 (Annex I).  A summary of developments in England and Wales since November 2011 is attached at Annex J

28. It will be necessary to show that there is an economic benefit of any proposed intervention in wildlife. This may be difficult as illustrated by Defra’s Impact Assessment on wildlife intervention options (copy attached at Annex K).  

29. As the badger is a protected species, any intervention in the badger population will require the agreement of the Environment Minister, the issue of the necessary licences, and the availability of substantial funding that will be needed.  Any intervention would also have to be compliant with DARD’s statutory powers and take cognisance of any relevant legal rulings in Britain. 

Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

TB Policy and Veterinary Service TB Programme

24 April 2012

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