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TB or not TB? That is the question

The Independent - 13th April 2001

By Sanjida O'Connell

In the countryside, a new cull is about to start. This time it's badgers. But will their deaths really help eradicate bovine TB?

The fields of Britain are scarred with the funeral pyres of livestock and the burial pits of animals culled to stem the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. Next month, another culling operation is scheduled to start, this time among the country's badger population. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) plans to kill between 12,000 and 20,000 badgers as part of a research programme aimed at eradicating bovine tuberculosis (TB).

Such a culling programme may seem insensitive at this point, but it was planned long before the current outbreak of foot-and-mouth. It is not understood how cattle are infected with TB, but the Krebs Report, commissioned by Maff and published in 1997, found "compelling evidence that badgers are a significant source of infection". The Government is initiating the cull as a way of testing whether removing all the badgers in an area will eliminate TB.

But the culling programme is highly controversial. The criticism ranges from Dr Elaine King, conservation officer for the National Federation of Badger Groups, who claims the cull is "a grandiose futile exercise", to Tony Banks, the animal-loving MP. "Like a lot of things at Maff, killing badgers seems to be based more on voodoo than science," Mr Banks told the Commons this week.

Around 1,500 cattle are thought to be infected with bovine TB in the UK every year. In Ireland, between 30,000 and 40,000 cattle are removed and disposed of annually at a cost of about some Ir£60m (£50m).

TB has infected humans since pre-biblical times. It can be passed from cattle to humans through infected milk. The causes of TB, Mycobacterium tuberculosis in humans, and M. bovis in animals, were first identified at the end of the 19th century and the disease has since declined in developed countries. In recent years, however, cases of TB have begun to rise again, exemplified by outbreaks such as the recent one among children at The Crown Hills Community College in Leicester.

Throughout the rest of the developing world, TB infects up to a third of the population and accounts for three million deaths a year. New drug-resistant strains are now surfacing and since 1993 the World Health Organisation has declared TB a global emergency.

The UK is free of bovine TB, apart from some areas in the South-west, according to the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, at Weybridge in Surrey, which conducts research into bovine TB on behalf of Maff. The disease in these areas is largely attributable to endemic infection in wildlife.

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