Controlling M. bovis in NZ, four years on – Expert Reaction

On 21 July 2017, the bacteria Mycoplasma bovis was first found in New Zealand cattle. A year later, in May 2018, we became the first country in the world to aim to eradicate it.

To mark four years since the disease’s discovery in Kiwi cows, the SMC asked experts to reflect on the programme and its impacts.

Dr Geoff Noller, Assistant Research Fellow, Department of General Practice & Rural Health, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago, comments:

“Today marks the four-year anniversary of the commencement of control over Mycoplasma bovis, a cattle disease incursion programme described by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) as one of its biggest-ever biosecurity responses.

“The disease, causing untreatable mastitis in dairy and beef cows, severe pneumonia in up to 30 per cent of infected calves, and other symptoms, was first identified in July 2017. In May 2018 the government committed to investing $880 million over 10 years to eliminate the disease in New Zealand, including farmer compensation, something never attempted elsewhere.

“The programme was heavily criticised for its ham-fisted response to managing the incursion during its first 18 months, with this culminating in MPI issuing a public apology for its response. This followed the release of two critical reviews, which identified issues including a lack of staff to handle the workload, a critical shortage of appropriately skilled and experienced individuals in key roles, poor or absent liaison with local veterinarians, and poor systems and processes to support the response.

“Subsequently, the programme has gained ground, with more recently-exposed farmers generally reporting increased timeliness of interventions and responses.

“Nonetheless, published and on-going research from Otago University researchers at the Dunedin School of Medicine’s Department of General Practice and Rural Health, led by Dr Fiona Doolan-Noble, has identified significant and lasting psychosocial harms to farmers, and their families and workers, and rural professionals such as veterinarians, associated with MPI’s management of the incursion.

“Our research team has suggested that given New Zealand will always be vulnerable to future disease incursions, the management of such events would be more effective and less traumatic for the agricultural sector if MPI engaged directly with affected communities. By drawing on their expertise and pragmatic problem-solving, the human cost of biosecurity incursions could be reduced – and the effectiveness of responses overall increased.

“At the time of writing, over $200 million has been paid out to farmers in compensation, over 170,000 cattle culled, and there are still active cases of M. bovis on New Zealand farms – with three cases currently in Canterbury and almost 100 properties under active surveillance nationally.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Scott McDougall, Vet and Registered Specialist in Cattle Reproduction, Professor at Massey University, and founder of Cognosco animal health and production research, comments:

“In the four years since discovery of Mycoplasma bovis in cattle in New Zealand, MPI and its industry partners (DairyNZ, and Beef and Lamb) have developed and implemented effective systems for both active surveillance (casing and tracing) and background surveillance (e.g. bulk milk testing and testing cattle at slaughter). Additionally, processes to remove animals, disinfect properties, and compensate herd owners have been developed and implemented.

“The eradication programme has evolved significantly over the four years with streamlining of the many processes required with learning by MPI and industry partners.

“The eradication programme has had significant impact on affected farmers, but improvements in processes and shortening of turnaround times for compensation, as well as support from numerous organisations, has hopefully reduced these impacts.

“Not unexpectedly, due to the at-times cryptic nature of infection with this bacteria, combined with unrecorded cattle movements, cases have been detected outside of tracing networks via the background surveillance system. The recent Canterbury cluster, and a number of recent bulk milk test positive samples, reinforce the need for ongoing care with cattle movements and National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) recording.

“With currently only three active properties, there is cautious optimism that eradication may be achievable. However, long-term surveillance will be required before freedom from infection can be declared.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I have no conflicts of interest to declare, but acknowledge my role as Chair of the Technical Advisory Group to MPI for the M. bovis programme.”