Officials in England have issued the first license for a cull of the badger population in Gloucestershire following an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis. It is expected that additional licenses will be issued for different regions in coming weeks.
Bovine tuberculosis (bovine TB) is an infectious disease that primarily affects cattle, though many mammals can be affected. Carriers of bovine TB include bison, elk, kudu, deer, and badgers. Most countries have eliminated the disease from domesticated animals. The United States occasionally reports infection in deer herds, the United Kingdom in badger populations, and Ireland, in opossum populations. Bovine TB is still relatively widespread in certain African and Asian countries. Consequences of this disease for the cattle industry can be severe. In 2011, 26,000 cows slaughtered due to possible infection.
The culling in Gloucestershire is a pilot program based on previous research that reduction of the badger population by 70 percent can decrease bovine TB rates in the area by 16 percent. If this pilot is successful, officials will carry out a nine-year program to cull around 100,000 badgers across England.
However, some uncertainty about the cost-effectiveness of this program still exists. The culling will be paid for by the local farmers. But is the cost of culling worth the small effect it may have? Professor Sir Robert Watson, former science advisor to the Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) cautioned, “I would say the economics is very close as to whether it is worth it. But the government has made a decision that it should be tried if farmers are willing to fund it.”
Animal rights activists have also weighed in on the issue. A local group, the Badger Trust, has pledged to help protect badgers from hunters by shepherding them to covered areas. Additionally, the trust is working towards legal action to prevent badger culling.
Defra Minister David Heath recently explained, “No one wants to kill badgers, but the science is clear that we will not get on top of this disease without tackling it in both wildlife and cattle.”
Other regions, including Wales, have relied on bovine TB vaccinations in the cattle population as the primary strategy in disease prevention.
Human infection with Mycobacterium bovis (the bacteria that causes bovine TB) is rare, but possible. Transmission is generally limited to immunodeficient individuals and those who work closely with cattle. According to the CDC, less than 2 percent of the total TB cases in the United States are caused by M. bovis. Transmission of bovine TB from cattle to humans can occur through ingestion of contaminated and unpasteurized dairy products, contact with open wounds, or, albeit rarely, through respiratory transmission. Bovine TB in humans is treated similarly to other TB infections, and, similar to other TB infections, can cause death if left untreated.
Officials recommend preventing transmission to livestock by building and maintaining fences and allowing hunters and trappers in surrounding areas.