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Tuberculosis has been a scourge of mankind since pre-biblical times. From the end of the 19th century, when the causative organisms were first identified (Mycobacterium tuberculosis and M.bovis), the disease was in steady decline in the developed world. A combination of improved nutrition and social conditions, pasteurisation of milk, the development of antibiotics and the use of both X-ray screening and the BCG vaccine had virtually eradicated TB from western countries.

Elsewhere in the world it was a different story. Even with the benefits of the vaccine, M.tuberculosis continued to infect one third of the human population and accounted for three million deaths every year.

Recently, however, however, TB has re-emerged worldwide as a major threat to public health due to the development of multi-drug resistant strains of the organism and the triggering of disease in individuals infected with HIV. In 1993, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared TB a global emergency and this has fuelled a worldwide increase in TB research.

Within the UK, the incidence of TB in people is still relatively low; and is mainly confined to people who come into the UK from poor countries where TB is rife; or where people live in cramped or unsanitary conditions.

So far as agriculture is concerned, DEFRA takes great pains to try and control tuberculosis in cattle. Bovine TB is an important disease in its own right and a small source of the disease for the human population. It has been known for a hundred years that cattle also get TB and that in some cases the disease can be transmitted to man (usually in a non-respiratory form) through milk. In the 1930s it was estimated that around 2,500 deaths caused by TB in the UK each year (5-10% of the total cases), were due to infected milk. The introduction of DEFRA’s Attested Herds Scheme and the widespread use of pasteurisation greatly reduced the levels of disease in cattle and man.

Although most of Great Britain remains free of bovine tuberculosis, specific areas in the south-west of the country have shown an increasing incidence over recent years. 1599 cases of tuberculosis were confirmed in individual cattle from Great Britain in 1996, mostly as a result of tuberculin testing. This geographical difference in disease incidence has been assumed to be because the infection is present in certain wildlife species, which act as a reservoir for the disease.

DEFRA (and their predecessors, MAFF) have argued for a very long time that the presence of TB in badgers in the South-West of England provides a very significant cause of bTB infection in cattle. Other scientists (and pressure groups) argue that, badgers tend to be the recipients of the disease; with the vast majority (if not all) the blame for continued levels of bTB infections being within cattle themselves.

That said, the first badger discovered to be suffering with TB, was found as late as 1971. It might not be too much of a leap of the imagination to suggest that badgers first became infected with TBs from cattle; rather than vice-versa.

Over the past few years, MAFF, and now DEFRA, have attempted to define a huge experiment (in which tens of thousands of badgers will be killed over hundreds of square miles of countryside) to determine "once-and-for-all" whether badgers are the cause of bTB in cattle. While significant arguments remain about the scientific validity of the experiment, it seems highly unlikely that the cull will produce any results which will be accepted as being accurate and scientifically valid by both sides of the badger divide.

Pessimists in the badger community argue very strongly that research efforts should take place to develop vaccines to prevent cattle, badgers and other species from getting TB in the first place. In the long term, this is the ONLY acceptable solution, unless, of course, you want a the Foot-and-Mouth-type slaughter on a repeated basis.

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