When animal disease strikes

Can we apply any of the lessons learned from Foot and Mouth in the UK to how we deal with the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak? 

Usually when animal disease strikes, it is the advice and expertise of the veterinary sciences that is sought. However, outbreaks such as Foot and Mouth in the United Kingdom in 2001 have led to the recognition that the social sciences should also play an important role in the management of animal disease. 

While there are some important differences between the presence of Mycoplasma bovis in New Zealand and the UK’s Foot and Mouth outbreak, there is already a remarkable similarity between the two events. Taking lessons from social studies of animal disease, the following issues should be of concern for all involved in the management of Mycoplasma.

1. Trust

In 2001, the outbreak of Foot and Mouth in the UK was accompanied by a complete breakdown in trust between farmers, vets and the government. Why was this? Partly because of organisational inefficiencies and a perceived cultural distance between London (where policy was made) and the countryside (where policy was delivered). The impact was to make eradication harder as decisions were challenged.

To be sure, the importance of trust in disease eradication is not unknown to New Zealand: in the early days of the bovine Tuberculosis eradication programme, farmers and vets were distrustful of officials from Wellington, refusing to test their cattle and even going on strike. Distrust of government advice has affected other disease programmes in the UK and Australia.

The lesson for policymakers is to engage rather than lecture, and to work in—and with—the communities they are serving rather than from a distance. Trust is also maintained through transparency of decisions made, activities to be undertaken, and in the clarity and consistency of information provided.

2. Awareness and education

Improving awareness and education of a problem like Mycoplasma bovis and its consequences is often assumed to be the best way to get people to ‘do the right thing’. In fact, this style of communication is often shown to have little or the opposite effect—and is magnified where trust is in short supply.

In animal disease control, the same is true. Studies have shown farmers develop and rely on their own understandings of disease processes. They share stories and accounts of expected and unexpected incidents and these can drive decisions whether to implement biosecurity advice. Cattle movement restrictions may be something New Zealand farmers will need to get used to, and will bring pre-existing National Animal Identification and Tracing compliance issues into high relief. But for other diseases, analysis of the regulations and communication of risk advice shows that many farmers make ‘risky’ cattle purchases or ignore risk assessments in favour of their own explanations of disease susceptibility.

In fact, other studies have shown how animal disease regulations may promote ‘risk compensation’ — the protection provided by biosecurity measures and financial compensation may be compensated for by other risky behaviours. As Mycoplasma eradication unfolds, it will be important to look for and monitor these effects. Acknowledging, and working with, farmer expertise will help mitigate some of these risks and their effects.

3. The politics of expertise

Diseases are political: whether a disease deserves to be eradicated depends on social and economic processes, and the power of vested interests to turn a disease into a problem. What this means is disease outbreaks inevitably become the focus of dispute and contestation because there is no certainty around why some diseases should be eradicated while others are left to farmers to deal with.

Consider, for instance, differences between the management of Mycoplasma, bovine TB, bovine viral diarrhoea and Johne’s disease. At the same time, the forms of expertise used to justify disease controls, such as the contiguous slaughter policy used during Foot and Mouth, reflect political choices. In this case, it was a preference for a command and control style of epidemiological modelling versus the more nuanced but uncertain field knowledge of local vets. These political choices can therefore usher in new styles of disease control.

As the eradication of Mycoplasma unfolds, particularly if it is unsuccessful, watch for these disputes between different disease control experts and how they are adopted by different political groups. Of particular interest will be how long the authority and expertise of the Ministry for Primary Industries holds, how local veterinary advice will be received, and what these disputes will indicate about the governance of agriculture in the long term.

4. Social impacts

Finally, media reports have rightly featured the social impacts of Mycoplasma suffered by those farmers, for example, who have been made to send heavily pregnant cows to slaughter and others who will lose a half-century of selective breeding, Recognising and understanding these impacts is an important part of managing animal disease outbreaks.

As previous research of events like Foot and Mouth in the UK have shown, the effects of losing cattle in whole-herd slaughter policies can result in severe emotional trauma, leading to recommendations for the National Health Service on the best ways to cope with the increased stress felt by farmers and their families. It is not just the untimely loss of cattle that causes emotional trauma, but the stress of navigating bureaucratic procedures and regulations. Maintaining consistency in the rationale for movement restrictions, and the culling of some animals but not others, will not only foster trust between farmers and government, but help maintain social ties between farmers.

How the Ministry for Primary Industries publicly justifies its actions and demonstrates support for farmers will also impact broader social responses and public sentiment. Vets and other rural professionals involved in the management of disease may also suffer, and providing time and places to talk through and share the experiences of their work is a key recommendation from this research. If not, as others have shown, the mental health consequences of managing disease outbreaks may ultimately lead them to abandon farming or their careers.

For the eradication of Mycoplasma, what is important is not just to fully resource rural mental health services, but to recognise that it is human behaviour that drives these social impacts. If Mycoplasma needs eradicating, developing a caring, compassionate response that answers to the consequences of killing 126,000 cattle should be a priority. This response will also need to be flexible and adaptable, as the impacts will vary among decision-makers, farmers, vets, livestock transporters, meat processors and future consumers of animal products.

And finally, the social relationship between people and animals will, and should, be put under ethical scrutiny. What will be used to justify the untimely slaughter of that many animals—and will that lead to a public backlash against livestock farming in general?

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Sciblogs, the guest blog of the Science Media Centre.

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