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David Heath's Column 26/07/13

I doubt if there is very much more that could be said or written on the vexed subject of bovine tuberculosis and badgers, but I'm equally confident a lot more will be over coming weeks and months, as we move to the implementation of the pilot cull in Somerset and Gloucestershire. As I drove out of my village to go to the Frome Half Marathon on Sunday morning there was a dead badger in the middle of the road, and I half expected to have to explain that I hadn't been personally responsible for its demise.
But on Tuesday in the early hours of the morning I was in Gloucestershire and within literally inches of several live badgers, all of whom, happily, survived the experience. I had the opportunity to observe at close quarters the vaccination programme we have been supporting for some time, and which forms a very important of the comprehensive strategy which we published a few weeks ago to eradicate the disease in both cattle and badgers over the next twenty five years.
There are those who want to have you believe that we are deliberately ignoring vaccination as an option because, for some reason which I have some difficulty understanding given how emotive an issue it is, we prefer to simply kill badgers. Of course, the opposite is the truth. Vaccination, of both badgers and cattle, is a key part of the programme, and will be an increasingly important one. And what we want is healthy cattle and healthy badgers.
It is frustrating that we don't have a vaccine for cattle that we can use yet. We have one, the old BCG that many of us had put in our arms as children. We also have a test which we think will distinguish between a vaccinated animal and an infected one. But we can't use either until we have jumped through a long series of regulatory and legislative hoops at European level, and the European Commissioner, who I spoke to recently on the matter, says that's likely to beat least ten years away yet.
As far as badgers are concerned, we have an injectable vaccine, which is what I saw being used this week. What we don't have, but we're putting a lot of money into developing, is an oral vaccine, which would be a lot easier to use and which would enable us to immunise a lot more badgers. And what we're also working on is better diagnostic tests so we can better identify infected setts and individuals. But for the moment we have the injectable vaccine, which is expensive to administer and has the disadvantage of having to be repeated each year. And of course, vaccination doesn't cure a sick badger. But it is still an important tool in dealing with the disease.
And that's precisely the point. When you're fighting a devastating infection which results in over 28,000 cattle being slaughtered each year, and will cost the taxpayer around £1billion over ten years, you need to use everything available. That includes culling, because other countries, including Ireland, show it works. But it also includes vaccination, alongside better biosecurity and cattle movement controls, until we're finally on top of the disease.


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