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Written - Skanda Vale
I am making this statement to explain where matters now stand in relation to the bovine TB situation at the Skanda Vale Community near Carmarthen.
One of the bullocks at the Skanda Vale Community, named Shambo, tested positive on the tuberculin skin test on 27 April. This test is designed to show whether an animal has come into contact with the bacterium that causes bovine TB. The test is recognised by the European Union and by the World Organisation for Animal Health. It is 99.9% accurate. That means that it shows an incorrect result just once in a thousand cases.
Whether an animal is actually suffering from TB is something that can only be shown by post-mortem examination or by microbiological analysis after death. The skin test detects exposure to the infection. An animal may not be showing clinical signs of the disease but may still be infected. A proportion of those animals where disease is not confirmed post mortem will be in the early stages of infection and thus will not have developed lesions. Such animals have still been exposed to infection.
It is important that we look at the epidemiological picture at Skanda Vale in the round. Further testing of the Community’s herd, carried out on 4 and 5 June, has shown a worrying pattern of further potentially infected cattle. If Shambo was shown to have clinical TB, normal procedure would mean that Animal Health would interpret these further results as showing two more animals as positive reactors to the tuberculin skin test, in the same category as Shambo, and five others as inconclusive.
The normal policy is that cattle testing positive for TB are removed from the premises and put down, for two reasons:
- First, to eliminate to possibility of disease spreading from the animal to infect other cattle or people; and
- Second, the post mortem examination is crucial when assessing the disease situation in a herd, as in determining the frequency of testing and the interpretation of results, to ensure the disease is eradicated in the herd.
The Community believes that all life is sacred, and that the life of animals is a manifestation of God and part of the nature of God. They cannot contemplate any of their animals being put down, under any circumstances. I have a great deal of respect for the beliefs of the Community, and have therefore considered long and hard their argument that Shambo should be isolated and treated with antibiotics. The Assembly Government has assessed this case very carefully indeed over the last two months. The option is problematic in veterinary terms for a number of reasons.
Bovine TB is dangerous to other animals and to people. Five microscopic bacilli (or particles) are enough to cause infection if breathed in. An animal can start shedding the bacteria before showing any clinical signs of disease. An animal can shed the bacteria intermittently, from day to day, and so testing to establish whether it is shedding the bacteria is impractical. There is no effective, accepted treatment for bovine TB in cattle. There are no antibiotics licensed in the UK for treating bovine TB in cattle. This means that if Shambo were given antibiotics experimentally, there would be no way of testing whether they had cured him. So if he were given antibiotics, he would still have to be kept in isolation for the rest of his life. Isolating an animal with bovine TB is very difficult, and requires extremely specialised facilities, which are found only in top-level research centres. There would be a long lead time to build such facilities at Skanda Vale, during which period the animal would be being held in conditions which would not be adequate to prevent a risk of the disease being spread. So treatment and isolation would not prevent the risk of the disease being spread.
The recent final report of the Independent Scientific Group on cattle TB, following ten years of research, has underlined the importance of taking stringent measures to deal with infection as soon as it is identified.
Under the Animal Health Act 1981, I have discretion as to whether to have an animal with bovine tuberculosis put down or not. I am also committed to operating within the European Convention on Human Rights, article 9 of which protects the right to manifest religion. The Convention does however provide clearly that the right can be limited if necessary to protect health. In deciding how to use my discretion I have therefore considered extremely carefully whether the rights of the Community to manifest their religion should override the duty on me to protect animal and human health. In the light of the veterinary, medical and legal assessments, I am minded to conclude that they should not, and that the normal policy for controlling bovine TB should be upheld in this case. A letter was sent to the Community’s solicitors on 25 June informing them of this, and asking them to send me any further representations they wish to make so that I can take a final decision. Relevant extracts from the letter are attached.
I am acutely aware of the distress that this will cause not only to the Community, but also to many in the wider Hindu community. This is something that I regret deeply, but my view is that it is necessary that I take appropriate steps to protect animal and human health in this case. It is not a view I have reached lightly. We have considered long and hard the case that the Community has made, and officials met representatives of the Community and members of the wider Hindu community last week to discuss matters. I have taken carefully into account all the issues that have been raised, and will listen carefully to any final representations that they may make.