In recent days the subject of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) has grabbed unprecedented media attention. After the government’s controversial decision to carry out a badger cull gained a few column inches, the news that 28,000 cows slaughtered due to bTB infection had been sold by DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to some caterers and food processers took the story right onto the front pages.
The government’s response was unequivocal. Gov.uk featured a response which started: “The Sunday Times claim that people are at risk of contracting bovine TB through eating meat is irresponsible scaremongering.”
So what’s the truth of the matter?
BTB and human tuberculosis are members of the same family of mycobacteria, and there is some evidence to suggest bTB evolved about 5,000 years ago. It is possible for humans to become infected with bTB, but it is rare accounting for less than 1% of all cases in the UK.
Historically, bTB was a major cause of infection in the UK, being responsible for around 2,500 deaths from TB in the 1930s. However, most of these infections were as a result of drinking unpasteurised milk from bTB infected cows.
Milk that is properly pasteurised kills the bTB bacteria, making it safe to drink. Meat from bTB cows is also safe to eat (even raw, according to DEFRA) and is rigorously tested. Up to 70 people every year in the UK who get bTB do so mostly from drinking unpasteurised milk or from working closely with cattle and inhaling the bTB bacteria.
There’s no denying that bTB is a serious problem, with some estimates suggesting that the cost of the disease runs to £100million a year.
But let’s not forget that this is nothing compared to the cost of human tuberculosis.
Globally £13bn is lost every year just in terms of productivity. This doesn’t include the losses represented by 11% of children dropping out of school when a parent becomes ill, or that on average 15 years of income are lost with each TB death.
On the domestic front there are no readily available numbers on the costs of the disease in the UK. Last year there were around 8,500 drug sensitive cases in the UK and 431 drug resistant cases so a quick back of the envelope calculation is possible and puts the cost of treatment alone at over £50m per year, without considering diagnostic, screening services or all the other indirect costs.
But to talk purely in economic terms is to do a grave disservice to the millions of people who struggle with TB every year. We should not forget that tuberculosis has killed more people than every other pandemic in history combined nor that in the 5 minutes that it takes you to read this blog, a dozen people will have died. Even among those who survive the disease, many are left with long-lasting health implications that can severely damage their quality of life.
I am pleased to see tuberculosis on the front pages, the disease is often under-represented despite its terrible death toll, I just wish that the discussions were about the crushing impact of the human disease rather than its bovine equivalent.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Blog owner