Defra moves to quell public fears after woman begins treatment for the bovine form of TB

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A VETERINARY nurse is receiving treatment after contracting the bovine tuberculosis (TB) respiratory infection, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed yesterday.

A dog belonging to the woman, who is from Cornwall, has also contracted the disease, which is caused by an infection by the mycobacterium bovis (MTB) complex of bacteria.

The results of an investigation are expected to be published later this year, said a Defra spokesman.

"Mycobacterium bovis is a recognised zoonotic agent and that is precisely why we have a compulsory bovine TB control programme in cattle," said the Defra spokesman.

A zoonotic disease is one that can be transferred from animals to humans.

"Occasional spillover of infection into certain segments of the human population, particularly those in regular contact with cattle and other susceptible animals, is known to occur.

"The number of cases of human infection with bovine TB is low and stable," he added.

Ian Johnson, the spokesman for the National Farmer's Union in South-West England, said yesterday it was known that there was the potential for the disease to spread from one species to another.

He cited previous known cases in dogs and cats that had been in contact with badgers.

But he added: "People should not be alarmed in terms of their own safety.

"There is routine pasteurisation of milk, and there is no food chain-related transmission.

"The incidence of humans contracting bovine TB is incredibly small."

And he added that in the case of the veterinary nurse "we must assume she must have contracted it taking care of an infected animal".

"You will get these cases (of humans contracting bovine TB], but not in the general population who have no contact with badgers or cattle," he said.

A spokesman for the Health Protection Agency (HPA) confirmed that the organisation was aware of the Cornwall case, but said there was no "large-scale problem" of bovine TB in humans.

"Human cases of bovine TB do occur occasionally in the UK," said the HPA spokesman. "In 2006 there were 287 cases of TB confirmed in South-West England, of those, six were cases of bovine TB,"

"In 2007, there were 279 cases of confirmed TB in the South West region and of those two were confirmed as the bovine strain. The current risk posed by bovine TB to human health in the UK is considered negligible.

"When we are notified of a case of TB we seek to identify a source of infection, if possible, and take any measures to identify those at risk in order to minimise the risk of further cases.

"Bovine TB, like any other strain of TB, is treatable with a six-month course of antibiotics which must be completed in order for the treatment to be effective."

According to Defra, the majority of UK cases of bovine TB infection in humans is due to a reactivation of infections contracted before the introduction of pasteurised milk, or those who had picked up the infection abroad. Pasteurisation is known to kill the bacteria.

In its advice on bovine TB, Defra warns that the infection can affect domestic pets such as dogs but says the incidence is low. However, it warns against feeding household pets unpasteurised milk.

Although cattle, buffalo and bison are the natural carriers of bovine TB, the disease can be contracted by almost all mammals including deer. The disease is thought to be spread between groups of cattle by wandering badgers, but in July, Environment Minister Hillary Benn confirmed that the culling of badgers had been rejected by the government as a means to control TB infection.