Impacts of Mycoplasma bovis eradication – Expert reaction

Cabinet decided on Monday to continue efforts to eradicate the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis.

Experts say the efforts will have repercussions for farmers, though additional resources can be tailored to support those most vulnerable.

The Science Media Centre gathered expert reaction about the eradication effort.

Dr Daniel Tisch, Department of Management and International Business, University of Auckland, comments:

“The Mycoplasma bovis eradication programme underway will challenge farmer resilience. Resilience addresses the return to normal after a shock. The shock felt by farmers from culling their herds has been widely reported. From what we know about resilience, this initial impact will be followed by a recovery period, in which the mental and emotional state of farmers will be affected for years. The incidence of depression, suicide and other mental health conditions will rise. An average of one farmer every other week commits suicide in New Zealand and this rate increases during stressful times such as a drought. International studies of farmers highlight their vulnerability. Many countries have programmes to support farmer resilience. For example, US-lawmakers are currently discussing The Stress Act for farmers.

“My research in New Zealand showed that those most vulnerable to shock are sharemilkers, farm labourers and dairy hands because they have daily contact with animals now suffering. The Mycoplasma bovis eradication programme will expose farmers to the loss of their entire herd. Supporting farmer resilience is useful to view in two phases: reducing initial impact and increasing the rate of recovery. Financial support and crisis helplines serve to dampen the initial impact of a shock. But the insidious nature of stress during recovery is hard to address because it is invisible. Furthermore, decision-making is impaired by excessive stress and, over time, poor decisions can result in more stress. 

“This is important because the recovery phase justifies unique resources to support farmers. Call centre helplines are useful but have limits. I found that the most vulnerable farmers tend to be early-career, male, and aren’t inclined towards having conversations about what is stressing them, let alone having a deep and meaningful therapeutic conversation about recovery from shock. Instead, meeting on a farm or in some type of community centre such as a town hall or the local pub was a common way of coping with stress. I found farmers like hearing from other farmers in their communities, not only for practical advice but for a calming effect from being with others in the same predicament.  Providing opportunities for farmers to meet in places familiar to them is an important step for farmers to reach out for assistance.

“The take-away message is that resources to support farmer resilience can be tailored to those most vulnerable. We must remember that the Mycoplasma bovis eradication programme will have consequences for farmer well-being extending far beyond the culling schedule. Crown agencies, call centres and other organisations such as Federated Farmers and Rural Support Trust are best-placed to support farmer resilience from such shock events.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Helen Beattie, Chief Veterinary Officer, NZ Veterinary Association (NZVA), comments:

“As a veterinarian working on the foot and mouth response in the UK, I’ve seen the misery that outbreaks of serious infectious diseases can bring down on the agricultural sector – animals, farmers and their communities. Containing these outbreaks always involves hard choices and significant consequences – there are seldom any easy solutions.

“From a veterinarian’s point of view, eradicating this disease is the best solution. It is by far the best outcome from an animal welfare point of view. Long-term, it would also be best for farmer wellbeing and for minimising antimicrobial use on farms, which has implications for preventing antibiotic resistance.

“But eradication would come at a cost. It would require widespread culling of animals identified as positive and would constraint stock movements, which could have serious animal welfare implications. This is currently playing out, with significant numbers of stock unable to get to winter feeding locations.

“Eradication would be extremely stressful for farmers – financially and personally. And it could take years to achieve because infected animals might have no signs of illness and the bacterium is hard to identify through testing. These two issues make it very difficult to contain. Eradication would also require a huge investment of capacity and resources by industry and government.

“This (relatively) short-term pain might be worth it long-term if we could be confident of succeeding in eliminating the disease and maintaining our M. bovis-free status in future.

“Scientifically, this is possible. But there is growing pessimism that it might be too late – that the disease already has such a hold that it can’t be reined in.

“However, the ‘good’ news is that other countries manage to live with this disease without their industries being devastated – in fact, it exists in all other cattle and dairy producing countries. Although M. bovis will have some scratchy parts from time to time (i.e. clinically sick animals), it can be tamed given appropriate herd management.

“The ‘bad’ news is that managing it is difficult because M. bovis is hard to see, hard to test for, and hard to treat. You don’t always see clinical signs, or if seen, they can look like other diseases. Testing is tricky and the results are inconclusive. Antibiotics aren’t very effective in treatment of the disease. Culling infected animals is generally the only option.

“Quality on-farm relationships between veterinarians and farmers are essential to the eradication plan having any chance of succeeding. This will support animal welfare, responsible use of veterinary medicines and strong biosecurity. This outbreak under-scored just how important it is for veterinarians to have a real and regular on-farm presence.

“Crucial to us being able to control the disease and respond appropriately is the National Animal Identification and Tracing scheme (NAIT). Under this scheme, individual cattle are tagged so their movements can be traced – including in the event of a disease outbreak.

“NAIT is compulsory but use of the system has been patchy. Without a doubt, this severely hampered MPI’s ability to respond the current M. bovis outbreak. Accurate NAIT records and the capacity to use this information to trace infected premises is critical. If we want to move to an environment where incursions, including M. bovis, are managed effectively, use of NAIT has to change.”

 No conflict of interest declared. Note: Dr Beattie’s full op-ed is available here.