With the government setting a 25-year target of eliminating bovine TB from the UK, a new report from Oxford Martin School academics has given a succinct summary of the scientific facts relating to the disease.
Professor Charles Godfray, director of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, and Professor Angela McLean, co-director of the school's Institute for Emerging Infections, led the project to compile the evidence base underlying the UK’s bovine TB policy – a contentious and vigorously debated subject because of its costs to farming and the controversy around badger culling.
In their summary they write: “Bovine TB has major costs to the government and to the farming community".
“Several factors make it a particularly difficult disease to understand in cattle and wildlife, but the study shows the substantial progress that has been made over recent decades that can help inform policy.”
Professor Godfray told Radio 4’s Inside Science programme: “Bovine TB is an extremely complex disease. We don’t have very good tests for it and we don’t have very good vaccines.
“The main wildlife reservoir is a badger, which lives underground and has a very complex social structure.
“It’s an extraordinarily difficult disease to study but we now know much more about it than we used to.”
The review looks at what scientists know about how the disease works, at testing and surveillance, and at culling and vaccination.
The summary adds: “Agreeing on what the science says is important because it means everyone can discuss the topic based on a shared evidence base.
“But natural science alone cannot determine policy. Policy makers must also factor in evidence from the social sciences including economics, areas not considered by the project.
“And finally in a democracy politicians have to make difficult decisions about the interests of different groups when they come into conflict.”
Launching the government strategy, environment secretary Owen Paterson said 28,000 otherwise healthy cattle had to be slaughtered last year because of bovine TB.
“Today we start a countdown towards an England free from this terrible disease,” he said.
“We must stop BTB spreading into previously unaffected areas while bringing it under control in places where it has taken hold.
“I have visited Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland and the USA and we must learn from their successful TB eradication programmes.
“Bovine TB is the most pressing animal health problem in the UK. It threatens our cattle farmers’ livelihoods and our farming industry as well as the health of wildlife and livestock.
“We must all work together to become TB free within 25 years.”
Photograph by Killian Woods