Opinion: TB target date is a ‘dismayingly’ long way off

Bovine TB testing has finished at my partner’s firm, so the subject was on my mind when I saw the recent interview with Dick Sibley, a vet who used to be a member of Defra’s Bovine TB Partnership. 

I admit to being surprised to read that the target date to eradicate TB in England’s cattle is 2038, which was set in 2013.

It seems a dismayingly long way off, and it was even more dismaying that Mr Sibley thinks it is unlikely to be met because the problem is not being tackled robustly enough. 

See also: Opinion – media mockery of health and safety makes me angry

About the author

Joy Bowes
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer
Joy Bowes, a former solicitor, divides her time between Suffolk and her partner’s  223ha Lake District hill farm. It is home to a herd of Galloway cattle. Higher Level Stewardship conservation work has been carried out, with plans for more trees under Countryside Stewardship.
Read more articles by Joy Bowes

Perhaps there were scientifically rigorous calculations of how long eradication would take and it is pure coincidence that they happened to add up to a nice round 25 years.

But my cynical reaction was that it looked like a date sufficiently far into the future that the people setting it will not be around to get the blame if it is missed. 

I was aware that work is under way to tackle the problem of TB, but I wanted to know more so I turned to the internet.

I emerged from the rabbit hole (or should that be badger sett?) with a better understanding of why eradication is not susceptible to an easy solution.

It can be difficult to prove with scientific rigour what works in tackling TB.

An intervention may appear to be effective, but uncertainty arises because confounding factors come into play when trials are conducted in large areas of the countryside.

For example, it is established that TB passes between badgers and cattle, but it is not clear how best to prevent this.

Culling badgers divides opinion as to its efficacy. Vaccination reduces infection among those animals, but at present it seems we lack proof that it prevents them passing it to cattle.

Thanks to vaccines, many previously devastating human diseases are now rare, so I assumed that a TB vaccine might be the answer for cattle and I knew that trials were being carried out.

I was therefore surprised that Mr Sibley expressed reservations about pinning too much hope on vaccination as a silver bullet, but on reflection, I can see that there is more to it than just establishing an accurate test to distinguish infected animals from vaccinated ones.

Farmers will have to be convinced that the vaccine is sufficiently effective and safe before they are confident to use it.

So, there is a target, a vaccine trial and people with specialist knowledge working on this intractable problem. But does whoever is ultimately in charge have enough personal motivation to hit that target?

Who decides, and how, what to do with the scientific evidence and practical advice? Politicians come and go, and are influenced by public opinion.

Mr Sibley says that his proposals for increased blood testing went to Defra and disappeared.

It would be a great pity if people who are directly affected by it and who are striving for an end to TB are thwarted by political timidity or sclerotic government processes.

My partner’s herd tested clear, but it is always a tense moment when the vet takes the callipers to the lumps on a cow’s neck.

I would like to think that long before 2038 I won’t need to stand there holding my breath along with the test sheets, but I’m not optimistic.

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