It is still too early to breathe a full sigh of relief over brucellosis
Published 06/10/2009 | 05:00
Ireland was declared brucellosis free on July 1. The EU has approved Ireland our brucellosis-free status. Hallelujah. The road to brucellosis eradication was strewn with misery and mistakes, with a few saboteurs thrown in.
At its height in Ireland, brucellosis abortion was an awful scourge. It was seen as a much greater problem than TB. The fear of the abortion storm was immense. The compensation for herd depopulation was costly for the State and, more often than not, left the herd owner short as well.
A farmer that I met recently was free of brucellosis until 2002. Then it hit. Dead and dying calves slung all around his yard and cubicles. He still shivers when he remembers the smell in the air. Not only did it bring misery and devastation to dairy and beef herds, but brucellosis is also a serious threat to humans. Over the years it took a particular toll on vets and farmers through undulant fever. The pasteurisation of milk gave a measure of protection to consumers but vets and farmers were vulnerable when handling and calving infected cows. So it's good riddance to brucellosis.
Unsurprisingly, the country is now patting itself on the back. Farm minister Smith described securing official brucellosis free status as "a landmark in the history of disease eradication in Ireland", and said that this success was due to a number of factors, not least the full co-operation of all the stakeholders in the eradication regime.
The campaign to eradicate brucellosis from Ireland began way back in 1965. At that stage 15pc of herds were infected, ranging from 2pc in Mayo to 30pc in the south. It took 44 years to bring us to the stage we are at today.
Should eradication have been achieved faster? Could farmers and herd owners have been saved millions of pounds/euro?
In Ireland it was decided to begin the eradication in the northern counties where infection levels were lowest. With hindsight that was mistake number one. Reactor cow herds in Leinster were depopulated only to be replaced with other infected heifers and cows from the south where brucellosis was rife.
In the south west, counties Cork, Kerry and Limerick were the fountainhead of the Irish cattle supply to the rest of the country. Even though brucellosis prevalence here was 30pc, this monster had to be tackled to protect the country as a whole.
Controversy raged when the eradication scheme based on testing and depopulation moved into Kerry. Luckily for Irish farmers we had a world-class scientist, UCD's Professor Brendan Cunningham, in the country. Prof Cunningham was adamant eradication should be accompanied by vaccination and that vaccinated immune animals should not be culled. Otherwise half the cows in Kerry would be slaughtered.
Also, his research showed that a Dutch vaccine known as 45/20 was far superior to the strain 19 used at the time. Cunningham's stance was strongly backed by Paddy O'Keeffe in the Farmers' Journal. Eventually the then farm minister called in Prof Cunningham in 1979 and the minister was convinced into making a change of direction. From 1979 to 1984, using the vaccination approach recommended by Prof Cunningham spectacular progress was made with prevalence falling by 50pc a year. By 1984 brucellosis prevalence was down to 1pc and we were actually talking of a brucellosis-free Ireland.
Then along came the EU in 1984 and offered funding but insisted that the vaccination be dropped. Prof Cunningham was aghast. He would not have stopped vaccinating until three years after the last case of abortion.
His worst fears were realised. Brucellosis took off again in the late 1990s helped, in a few cases, by rogue dealers. Eventually, 25 years later in 2009, the Republic is officially free of the disease but, worryingly, the same is not true for Northern Ireland.
Interestingly Australia embarked on eradication in the early 1970s. Prof Cunningham, now long retired and living in Co Wicklow, was invited to Australia as a consultant on eradicating brucellosis in that country. Using his blueprint of vaccination and slaughter out, Australia eliminated brucellosis in the 20 years from 1972 to 1992. The Australians had to contend with a reservoir of infection in camels and wild buffalo, not to mention feral cattle.
Being brucellosis free has already brought savings in less round testing, which IFA deputy president Derek Deane says is worth €5m a year to farmers. Under the regulation, he said that dairy farmers could eliminate round testing from next year and use the milk-ring test as a safeguard.
In Northern Ireland good progress towards eradication is under way. Only when they are brucellosis free can we breathe a full sigh of relief.