Friday, 14 May 2010

What now?

I couldn't claim that this two-day seminar has come up with any magic solutions to the TB crisis but at least I have a clearer understanding of the problem, and I think that may be true even for the experts. Solutions are always harder, but maybe we have had a glimpse of some tools that could help us out of this crisis. For farmers who are suffering the effects that may not seem very encouraging. but if I have learnt anything over these two days it is that this isn't a simple problem and there seems no point in expecting simple answers. We are going to need a strategy that uses all the tools on offer.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The ten year man

Glyn Hewinson from VLA has the dubious honour of being known as "The Ten Year Man" among farmers, or so he tells us, because any vaccine is always ten years away. Or maybe not. As he explained, there is now a vaccine that could be used on cattle - except it would be illegal and would wreck our meat trade. There would be no way of distinguishing the skin reaction of vaccinated cows and those carrying bTB. So until the researchers find a way around this, we can only keep it in reserve. Badgers may be luckier: there is now a vaccine that could protect them. Unfortunately they are reluctant to line up in the vet's waiting room for their jabs (perhaps like me they hate needles) so trapping will be necessary to make sure they get their annual dose. It will be interesting to see the result of the trial. Glyn emphasises that vaccines won't be a magic bullet, and it could take several years to see positive effects, but they are essential tools if we are ever to get ahead of this pernicious disease.

Know your enemy

Robin Skuce and his colleagues at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Northern Ireland matched today's sunshine with some optimism. They are looking at the genetics of cows and of the TB pathogen. For me this shed new light on a problem that so often seems beyond addressing, never mind solving. Of course, when one thinks about it, most pathogens do come up against individuals who have immunity. Human beings are not all equally susceptible to TB (and I was stunned to learn that 40% of the world's population is infected, although in most it is latent). Why shouldn't it be possible to select cattle for resistance to this bacterium? Robin thinks that this is quite feasible and with the necessary will and resources, could come about relatively quickly. His research also involves looking at the genetics of TB itself and he showed how its family tree has now been recorded in detail. Know you enemy, he urges. And tracking particular strains of bTB could show how the infection is being passed on. So maybe we have some new tools to use.

Heroes and villains

Christl Donnelly from Imperial College and her fellow members of the Krebs committee are used to being viewed as either heroes or villains - often by the same interest groups at different times. Her account of the trial cull of badgers was a fascinating one, giving some insights into the behaviour of the animals. That there is a relationship between TB in cattle and TB in badgers seems undeniable, but who gave it to whom is much more complicated. Results from the cull, as we know, showed that although incidence of bTB declined within the culling area, the risk actually rose in the 2 km zone outside it, presumably as infected animals were disturbed and moved beyond their usual range. So what's the answer: no culls or bigger culls? Maybe it has to lie in the economics. But that is unlikely to satisfy either side in the debate.

bTB or not bTB?

Why is bovine TB a policy issue at all? The round table discussion certainly got back to basics with this question. Is this disease still a threat to human health? If it is it shouldn't be coming from milk - if we can trust pasteurisation. But can we? And is it significant that TB testing subsidises some rural veterinary practices? Lots of questions. Lots of science. Not many answers at the moment.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

It's a vet's life

Gareth Enticott from the University of Cardiff looked at the realities of living with disease, quoting tellingly from Albert Camus' novel "The Plague". His stories and analysis gave an insight not only into the stresses upon farmers, but the dilemmas facing vets in their day to day practice. Their role in bTB testing means they are having to act as regulators to their own clients. At times this must make for an uneasy relationship. So what do we expect from vets and from veterinary expertise? And are our expectations reasonable?

Old outlaw badger

Bad Badger and Good Badger made another appearance in Angela Cassidy's fascinating analysis of media coverage of this hot topic. Most of the broadsheet media coverage she has looked at favours culling, yet, we are told that "The Public will not tolerate culling" and science correspondents seem particularly reluctant to enter the fray. It was intriguing to hear how far back we can trace the Good/Bad Badger debate, which first makes an appearance in the 10th century. It was regarded as an agricultural pest, and at the same time a brave, and somehow typically British character, who cared for his family and was an important part of our natural heritage. Generous bounties on his head from Tudor times until World War I attracted few takers. Like Robin Hood, he seems to have lived outside society, attracting sneaking admiration. Is this still the case? Do we simply not know what "The Public" really thinks? Or, perhaps, our attitudes are as complicated as they were in the 10th Century.

Evidence-based policy making the only game in town?

Katy Wilkinson has made a detailed study of Defra's policy on animal disease, having recently completed her PhD on the subject. She challenges the assumption that evidence-based policy making is the only game in town. In a situation such as we have with bTB, more evidence doesn't seem to help, as it is constantly contested and opposing opinions simply become more polarised. It is in politicians' interests to distance themselves from unpopular decisions, by basing them on "science" and reframing the question as technical one. But, Katy, argued, evidence can only inform decision making, it cannot replace making a decision, as she steered us skillfully through the complicated history of bTB policy.

Boo and hurrah

We have had a lot of "boo words and hurrah words" over the past few weeks and they don't just turn up in politics. Wyn Grant kicked off today's seminar with a fascinating look at the historical development of bovine TB policy and the role of emotion, blame, the creation of villains, and notions of justice. Badgers feature prominently in this picture and there is high emotion on both sides of that debate. Farmers are losing their livelihoods and, perhaps even more difficult, is the situation of those who live in constant fear of doing so. But what of Mr Badger? Is he villain or victim? In the policy archives it isn't even that simple. The badger per se might be a welcome rural resident, but "The Rogue Badger" is a figure who pops up from an early stage, well before the days of ASBOs, though I think he would qualify for one. He is old and senile but dashed cunning. He can't be trapped. So this debate has quite a history, whether you are booing or hurrahing.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Relu on the road again

It's supposed to be spring. Even in Newcastle there have been a few glimmers of sunshine and I have decided it might be safe to leave the office. Next week I shall be travelling down to the University of Warwick which is practically tropical in Geordie terms. Relu researchers who are investigating aspects of animal disease are hosting what promises to be a fascinating two-day seminar on bovine TB: "People, Politics and Culture" on Wednesday 12 May and "Hosts, Pathogens and Environments" on Thursday 13th. So I am dusting down the Roaming Relu blog to keep you updated on this fascinating - and controversial - topic. Watch this space.