By Iain Richards, veterinary ecologist, Heversham:

BOVINE tuberculosis (bTB) remains one of the biggest challenges in livestock farming in the UK.

It has huge impacts on the farms caught up in the disease. This isn’t just due to the numbers of cows killed (around 30,000 a year), but also the long-term effect of the restrictions that are placed on the farm.

In the high bTB areas, some farms have repeated breakdowns, which can be a significant strain. A similar number of badgers are also killed as part of the control measures and, while there is evidence that culling reduces the level of bTB, it remains a very controversial option.

It was therefore good to see two recent developments in the last week or so. First came the announcement that there would be a trial of a cattle vaccine, something that has been in development for at least 20 years. The vaccine (very similar to the BCG vaccine for humans which protects against TB) has been used in cattle for a number of years, but a problem has been distinguishing between vaccinated cattle and infected cattle, as both respond to the TB skin test in the same way.

A recent development in testing, however, means the difference can now be distinguished, allowing the trial of the vaccine in cattle; anyone involved with the disease will be hoping it is effective.

There are still questions to be asked - as one of the peculiarities of BCG vaccination is that the vaccine doesn’t prevent animals becoming infected, but instead stops the disease developing in the body. It should work, therefore, by reducing the risk of an infected cow passing it to an uninfected cow.

A second development has been a new policy statement from the British Veterinary Association. We have called for behavioural changes in the way the disease is tackled, ranging from encouraging the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs to share test data with a farm’s vet through to encouraging sharing of information when cattle are sold and rewarding those farms that have good biosecurity.

A critical thing to emerge from our work is that bTB is rarely treated as if it were an infectious disease. For most people, TB is all about a test that gets in the way of the normal day. If we could apply our knowledge as vets, using some of the other tests that are available, then control would be far more effective. Knowledge, biosecurity and vaccination could work nicely together to help reduce the impact of this insidious disease.