‘Better testing is key to eradicating TB in cattle’

European badger (Meles meles), young cub foraging in daylight, England, UK
European badger (Meles meles), young cub foraging in daylight, England, UK

The Northern Ireland Badger Group has called for a more effective TB test regimen to stamp out undetected infection in herds.

Responding to the Northern Ireland Audit Office Report, a spokesperson for the group said: “Better testing is key to eradicating TB in cattle. Both the NIAO Report and the recent Godfray Report on bovine TB have exposed the shortcomings of the current skin test, with recent studies showing that it only detects around 50% of infected cattle. The remaining 50% of infected animals are left undetected in herds, which can go on to infect others in the herd or to be traded and infect other herds.”

The group said the standard test leaves a significant amount of residual infection and that it should come as no surprise that herds suffer further breakdowns months or years later. It believes that many of these breakdowns are wrongly attributed to wildlife.

Veterinary scientist Dr Iain McGill, Director of the Prion Interest Group stated: “Continuing to use the SICCT skin test, which has a sensitivity of only 50%, is like trying to catch water with a sieve. Telling farmers that their herd is Officially TB-Free based on a test which only works half the time is fraudulent, and vets and farmers need to be explicitly informed of this, otherwise the disease will never be brought under control.”

The badger group has urged DAERA to trial the new Actiphage test in Northern Ireland. Actiphage, which is developed and manufactured by Suffolk firm PBD Biotech, has been licensed by the Animal and Plant Health Agency for exceptional private use in England. The new test has been used by a Devon vet as part of a private TB eradication strategy which cleared a dairy herd of bovine TB for the first time in six years.

The NIAO report also highlighted the risks posed by cattle movements.

The badger group believes that the distribution of TB strains in cattle and badgers across the province can only be explained by cattle movement.

“It is evident from the pattern of strain distribution that TB is spread through cattle movement and passed to the local badger population”, the spokesperson said, adding that badgers in Cumbria had been infected by cattle imported from Northern Ireland.

“Culling badgers will do nothing to address the reservoir of infection in cattle herds. Bovine TB is primarily a cattle problem that can only be solved with effective cattle measures, especially better testing”, he added.

“Badgers are a spill-over host infected by cattle and the only proven way to reduce the prevalence of bovine TB in badgers is through vaccination. Badger culling has failed to deliver on bovine TB and vaccination offers a wildlife option that will attract broad support from stakeholders and allow the NI bovine TB strategy to move forward.”