IN 2003, one of the practice clients is listed on the database to have had 103 cattle slaughtered at one time for TB. Every test result, before and since, is viewed on screen. A clear test is followed by a figure for reactors, then more reactors, then more reactors, then clear, then reactors, right up to the latest results. Despite all the slaughter, the herd is still TB positive today. Is this an exceptional occurrence?
Devon is the county with the most TB in cattle. The DEFRA website notes 1,060 herds under restriction in the first five months of 2008. In the whole of 2007 there were 1,259 herds under movement restriction in Devon, a quarter of all the herds under restriction in England.
In the heart of Devon is the Holsworthy practice and the practice members take a deep interest in cattle TB. Sitting next to Andy Cobner, as he reviews the practice figures, is a sobering experience. This one branch of the practice is involved with some 10% of the TB in Devon and if anyone is going to have an accurate view of the topic it is Andy.
Is TB improving? Andy looks at the database. In the first six months of 2008, 32 herds had new TB incidents with 207 reactors in total. In 2007 there were 135 reactors from January to June. To the end of August this year, from 269 herd tests there were 58 herds with reactors indicating that over 21% of the herds were positive for TB. This compares with 18% in the same period the previous year.
So the answer is no, the TB situation on cattle farms in the Holsworthy area is, if anything, getting worse. But, queried Andy, “Why would I expect to see an improvement?”
I was sitting in the heart of the centre for TB realism. For as long as the programme continues to be operated, the practice vets will attend to the requirements for TB testing. They will test the cattle diligently, record the results and try to support their clients as the cattle go for slaughter, but there is no illusion that they are reducing the incidence of TB.
As for eliminating the disease, that doesn’t even warrant a comment. What is taking place is a holding operation. The perceived aim is to reduce the risk of TB for the farmer, his family and his vet by taking out infected animals as early as possible and to limit the spread of TB in cattle.
When Andy entered the room he had returned from reading the skin tests of over 500 animals on a farm. Was he looking forward to a couple of hours of paperwork to record the results? “No.” Was he going to do the paperwork before going home? “No.” Was he going to do the paperwork at all? “No.” The practice operates a hand-held computer on farm so that there is no laborious paperwork. Between parking the car and coming upstairs the data had been loaded, so job done. The saving in time and sheer boredom of effort must be immense.
Iain Lorraine, the practice manager, had the exact figures to hand. With four hand-held computers it takes 2.25 months to regain the set-up costs of the program and units in equivalent veterinary time and 0.32 of a month in annual costs.
If the hand-helds are not used, just the program on a desktop, the return is in a few days. Currently some 100 practices use the TBMaster program, that Andy and Iain are promoting, and 35 practices operate the hand-held computers.
The number of tests being carried out by individual vets in other practices is very variable. The more being done the greater the administrative burden. With lay staff entering the data, the financial return takes longer but the system is still an administrative asset.
Although the practical application of an IT system helps the practice to function, it is the collection and interrogation of the data that is also of particular interest. Where there are cattle with TB there are also cattle with a range of other diseases and conditions. Use of the IT program allows for disease surveillance.
The recent introduction of procedures for bluetongue is seen as a wasted opportunity to bring the technology into play for everyone’s benefit. Instead of sticky labels to be affixed to paper to accompany samples, there is a whole technology of improvement that could be applied.
Quite simply, for testing, the application would be that the animal number lists for the herd pass by e-mail, the sample tube for bloods joins the list at the lab, the result goes on the database and the database is able to be interrogated. The practice can view the whole of the herd situation over time for all tested diseases.
So, how much BVD is there in Devon? “Lots.” Together with perhaps Johne’s, Neospora and, say, Brucella? No, not Brucella, but it is perhaps valuable to consider that the software was originally developed to handle a TB and a Brucella testing initiative, so underneath the single use exterior lies a very valuable tool.
If the application were to develop into disease surveillance it would require the “authorities” to support this initiative and to consider carefully who would gain and who would lose.
The law changes
It just so happens that there was a change in the criminal law on 28th May, 2008, concerning the sale of diseased animals. Nigel Durnford has prepared a document, for discussion by the England Implementation Group, which prepares the factual ground for auction sales and sales by private treaty, both criminal and civil.
It would appear that auction sales are clear that an infected animal cannot be sold and no doubt definitions of “unfit”, to include disease, will occupy learned minds. The main thrust for all sales is that there will be stronger redress from sellers if a farmer buys in an animal with disease.
If new law is to be applied to limit the transfer of infected animals from farm to farm, then it is likely that disease surveillance will become a hot topic. In the past it has been satisfactory for the seller not to declare and if the buyer didn’t ask then so be it.
The vet can be piggy in the middle and needs to advise his client the precise questions to ask before purchase. That is if the farmer bothers to consult the vet before opening his wallet. But, if the law is supported, then a database of farm animal test results might be in the interests of all and it fits in well with the idea of healthy herds.
Now would seem to be a good time to consider the whole topic of testing and recording for disease by veterinary surgeons, the application of modern methods and the value of disease surveillance. This is not a desktop exercise.
Infected farm animals is a practical topic and the ease of use for those who work with disease on the farm has to be considered for a scheme to be successful. The various authorities could do worse than task Andy and his colleagues to come up with a workable system for disease recording and surveillance. They might be surprised just how close these enthusiasts already are in thought and deed.
Once the location of disease is known, the means to improve the situation can be applied. Then, the really big topic can be addressed, of biosecurity.
The exact means for prevention of the transfer of disease and diseases between cattle and between herds, in cattle dense areas, is difficult. Some observers may say impossible. An accurate presentation of red, orange and green assessment marks on the disease surveillance map will indicate that progress is being made.