Badger culling as main solution to prevent spread of bovine TB is "short sighted"

27 Mar 2017

Current debate on badger culling in an effort to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis (TB) should be informed by greater scientific analysis of the roots of the disease, according to findings in 'A History of Uncertainty: Bovine Tuberculosis in Britain, 1850 to the Present' published by Winchester University Press. 

The number of cattle culled by bovine TB in the UK rose to nearly 40,000 last year, a 15 per cent increase on the previous 12 months. But author Peter Atkins, an Emeritus Professor at Durham University who for the past 40 years has studied diseases through the food system, suggests a resolution is "decades away".
 
"Whilst media interest focuses on badger culling - almost 11,000 badgers were killed last year as part of a government plan to control the spread of bovine TB - the situation is far more complex than the headlines suggest," Professor Atkins said. 
 
"My book reports that bovine TB caused 600,000 British deaths between 1848 and 1960, mainly due to non-pasteurised milk and undercooked meat - a little reported fact. History shows that bovine TB has been far more difficult to control than the main form of TB, and the subsequent badger debate has become political rather than scientific. Identifying badgers as the main cause of bovine TB is, frankly, short-sighted. It's far better to see the disease in its ecological system, in which cattle will probably have given the disease to badgers in the first place and the infection has then been exchanged back and forward between species (including humans at one point) for decades, possibly centuries."
 
Badger culling is currently focused on Gloucestershire, Somerset, Dorset, Cornwall, Devon and Herefordshire but history shows that other parts of the country were more affected by bovine TB in the past, Professor Atkins said. "North West England and Scotland were the original centres of the disease," he explained. "How and why the geography has moved has not been explained by science - and we therefore need to be mindful that all parts of the UK are at risk of bovine TB. The evidence shows that bovine TB is spreading - we can see it moving away from the South West into the West Midlands and Wales, whether that is through badgers or through cattle-to-cattle."
 
Professor Atkins continued: "Badger culling is unlikely to deliver much benefit for farmers but the introduction of the strategy has led to mutual recrimination amongst the interest groups. Farmers should adopt risk-based trading, buying in cattle only from clean sources, but can the government afford to support an active and intensive programme of cattle-based measures? This disease is creating a financial headache for everyone. In the UK bovine TB is estimated to have cost the taxpayer £500 million over the last 10 years and is likely to cost a further £1 billion over the next decade."
 
The book covers topics including: Telling the stories of bovine tuberculosis; 'Your enemy the cow': the construction of early medical and veterinary knowledge about bovine tuberculosis; Bovine tuberculosis: the human impact; The evolving veterinary science of bovine tuberculosis; The pasteurisation of Britain: how hot for how long?; Anti-pasteurisation discourses: resistance and modernity; Diseased meat and bovine tuberculosis; Tuberculous milk before the age of pasteurisation; Indeterminacy in policy making: 1914-1929; 1930 to 1937: white heat in Whitehall; Policy progress, 1937 to 1971; Epidemiological understandings of bovine tuberculosis; M. bovis and wildlife reservoirs; 1971 onwards: M. bovis fights back; and Is uncertainty the future?
 
"The most consistent element of our story has been the microbiological awkwardness of the mycobacterium, M. bovis, always just beyond the reach of a full understanding and effective intervention - it's like a birthday cake candle that won't blow out," Professor Atkins said. "The resilient mycobacterium is always waiting for new opportunities and in 50 years may find a way to strike once more, maybe this time to a new generation of raw milk drinkers. I don't wish to take sides in the badger culling debate. My view is it is extremely difficult to make decisions which are not informed by science, and at the moment we need to make the debate less political. A retreat to explanations emphasising vested interests or political incompetence simply will not do going forward."
 
A History of Uncertainty: Bovine Tuberculosis in Britain, 1850 to the Present is now available to buy via Winchester University Press at this link.
 
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