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Role of badgers in TB spread hotly disputed.

Byline: By Anna Lognonne

Farmers and animal conservationists have clashed over a recent Defra report on the spread of TB in cattle.

According to animal welfare groups, the Independent Scientific Group report confirms their warning that unregulated movement of infected cattle would spread bovine TB in cattle in the wake of foot-and-mouth disease.

However, farmers' leaders remained convinced badgers are the single most important source of infection.

The report stated the "appearance of TB strain types in new and distant geographic locations" was the "result of the movement of TB-infected cattle."

Responding to the finds, Dr Elaine King, chief executive of the National Federation of Badger Groups, said: "The NFBG clearly warned in 2001 that allowing the rapid movement of untested cattle in the wake of foot-and-mouth disease would lead to a massive escalation in bovine TB.

"This report also reveals that the Government's own scientific advisers `forcibly expressed' this warning to the Government but sadly, these warnings went unheeded.

"It is an absolute disgrace that taxpayers have been lumbered with a massive bill for a predicted and avoidable escalation in bovine TB. It is also important to note that the farming unions were behind the Government's feeble decision to allow the movement of untested cattle as farmers restocked after foot-and-mouth. Once again, the farming industry has been a victim of its own greed and belligerence."

But chairman of the National Beef Association's TB committee, George Richardson, responded: "The ISG is correct to point out there is some cattle-to-cattle spread, but we maintain that avoidable infection, and re-infection from diseased badgers, remains the single most important source.

"And while we agree that the transfer of infected cattle is a likely cause of new outbreaks in previously TB-free locations, we are sure that the relentless expansion of TB hotspots, which accounts for the bulk of the 18pc increase in TB incidence each year, is the result of regular cattle contact with infected badgers.

"We also note that the NFBG has used the ISG report to launch yet another blistering misinterpretation of the factors fuelling TB spread in which it claims that the movement of cattle during re-stocking after FMB almost certainly caused the massive increase recorded after herd testing resumed in 2002. So the NBA would like the exact number of new cases that can be unequivocally attributed to cattle-to-cattle spread as a result of post-FMD re-stocking to be made available, along with the part of the UK the infected cattle were transported from."

The NBA agreed with the ISG that false tuberculin skin test negatives may result in undetected TB cases remaining in some herds and becoming source of marginal inter-cattle disease transmission. So it has called for the gamma interferon assay to be officially adopted so infected cattle that have not been identified by the skin test can be picked out.

However, the NBA warned that there is little point in using the blood test to temporarily drive the disease out of herds in TB hotspots if the remaining cattle are at risk from almost immediate re-infection from nearby badger sources.

The NFBG is also critical of Defra's response to the report. Dr King accused Defra of sidelining the research because it did not fit in with its plans to cull badgers. Ben Bradshaw, Minister for Animal Health and Welfare, said: "This is a substantial document. Farmers and farming organisations, animal welfare groups, veterinarians, scientists, economists and many of the general public will find its chapters of interest.

"The Government's new TB strategy will be published shortly and the ISG's report will be considered, along with other evidence, in the delivery of the new strategy."
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Feb 15, 2005
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