Agriculture (Brucellosis)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th June 1966.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Fitch.]

11.7 p.m.

Photo of Sir Arthur Harvey Sir Arthur Harvey , Macclesfield

During recent months I have put several questions to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about brucellosis. For those who are not aware of the disease, let me tell them that it is the abortion of cattle, and that the disease can be passed on to human beings through milk or by handling.

This matter was debated on 19th June, 1964, on the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson). Looking back on it, it was a very good and interesting debate. There are several aspects of this subject to which I should like to refer in the short time available to me. I estimate that the cost of this disease to the dairy industry is a minimum of £2 million a year, or approximately £25 per infected animal, due to the loss of yield of milk of about 20 per cent., and, of course, loss of calves. There is also a loss to beef herds. Britain is short of beef, and we need every animal that we can get, without losing them through brucellosis. There is also the loss of exports of cattle, plus the cost of human brucellosis.

During the election campaign in my constituency I found that one well-known doctor was treating 28 patients for brucellosis. It is a ghastly complaint. A doctor in my constituency has suffered from it for about eight years. At the beginning of this year my youngest son, if I may bring him into this debate, who is aged 18, was complaining of headaches, but he went back to school in January. He ran a temperature of nearly 105 degrees, but he was being treated for influenza. After 14 days I asked that a specialist be brought in. A blood test was taken, and brucellosis was diagnosed. He is only just recovering, so I have had some first-hand information of how this disease can affect human beings.

There is nobody here from the Ministry of Health. I had thought that there might be. What is that Ministry doing about this disease? I am told that between 1,000 and 4,000 people in the country are affected annually, maybe more. One does not always know when people are affected. Human brucellosis is not notifiable in England, Scotland or Wales. People lose time at work. The duration of the illness can be up to many months or years, and there is a long convalescence.

The disease could be totally eliminated in Britain. The Minister is not facing up to the problem. Brucellosis is not unlike tuberculosis in cattle; it can be passed on to human beings. We have often been told by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite that during 13 years of Tory Government something should have been done about this matter. Let me remind the House that tuberculosis was eradicated completely in that time. It was the opinion of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that the two problems could not be tackled simultaneously. Tuberculosis was eradicated without crippling the country; it was costly, but it was done.

I wish to quote from a long letter which I received from the medical officer of health in my constituency. He said: … I would say for certain that there is more sense in making brucellosis notifiable than there is in having measles notified which is being done at present … Nor will pasteurisation solve the problem as we know that at least 25 per cent. of cases occur in people who handle diseased animals or their products … Only this day (1st June, 1966) I have had occasion to remove a Section 20 Order, which, as you know, is the Heat Treatment Order I place on a farm as a result of positive milk being found. This Order was placed on the farm at the end of last week, but the farmer has got rid of the two offending animals and I am obliged to remove the Order. We do not know where the two cows went, and they may well be producing milk in a diseased state on another farm which is going to the public in a dangerous manner.… If Mr. Peart wants to make this political, you can remind him that during the period from 1951 to 1962 the country was engaged in the eradication of tuberculosis from our cattle and that during this period it was impossible to tackle anything else. That letter was from a civil servant, a very well-known doctor in my constituency.

The right hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Greenwood), now the Minister for Overseas Development, speaking from the Opposition benches on 19th June, 1964, said: … as a nation we seem to have dragged our feet somewhat on the issue in a way which, to say the least, is surprising. Later, he said: It is a lamentable state of affairs that we seem to be almost the only country in Europe where brucellosis is not a compulsorily notifiable disease. and: … I support very strongly the suggestion that there should be compulsory slaughter of the infected beasts and that the Government fiould be prepared to accept the financial tesponsibility for this."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th June, 1964; Vol. 696, c. 1714–17.] The veterinary service in Britain is probably one of the best in the world. We certainly have the best veterinary surgeons, many of whom have been infected with Malta fever, who are hardworking, dedicated to their jobs, and working all hours of the day and night to improve the efficiency and well-being of our cattle. They have made strenuous efforts to combat this disease, but without a Government plan they have an absolutely hopeless task.

The present Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, also speaking on 9th June, 1964, said: I should like to know from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food why there has been this long delay in taking action. He went on to say: I want no lethargy. and, later, he said: In view of the menace to health and the cflect of the disease on our agriculture, the Ministry must do something about it. We cannot afford a delay of this kind". He also said: I shall not fight the election on brucellosis, but I have no doubt that, when there is a change of Government, the hon. Gentleman vvill remind me of my speech this morning."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th June, 1964; Vol. (696, c. 1722–7.] That is what I am doing tonight—I am reminding the right hon. Gentleman of his speech on 19th June, 1964. How tnany cases of human infection must there be before something is done about it, before there is an outcry among the public, among the thousands of people who are suffering on the lines which I have indicated?

I know, as a farmer in a small way, that S.19 has been an effective vaccine, but there is apathy among quite a considerable number of farmers, who do not always take the matter seriously. An animal that has been vaccinated with S.19 has this fact stamped under the tail, and it is not always discernible. There seems to be no policy at all. It is estimated that only 30 per cent. of calves are vaccinated before they are eight months old. Many herds carry animals which are free from brucellosis, but would react positively to the test. All such animals should be liable for slaughter if a test and slaughter policy were introduced.

Farmers are heavily penalised financially if the milk which they send to the Milk Marketing Board is infected by antibiotics, but nothing is done about brucellosis. It has been a notifiable disease in Northern Ireland since 1949. About 80 per cent. of the States of the United States are free from brucellosis, and the whole country is expected to be free in the next five years. France is running an eradication scheme. Practically all the Scandinavian countries have tackled the problem successfully. I do not know whether it is generally known that a patient who contracts brucellosis can sue a farmer who knowingly sells infected milk. The black spots are Cheshire and Somerset and areas of heavy dairy industry where people draw their milk from farms direct without pasteurisation.

The British Veterinary Association has drawn up an eradication scheme and is anxious to get on with it. Surveys that I have read show that about 66,000 cows in this country are infected. If all these animals were slaughtered and the farmers compensated at the rate of £100 per animal, the cost would be between £6 million and £7 million. I know that is a lot of money, but the health of the nation must come first. The increased cost of drugs as a result of free prescriptions is between £40 million and £50 million a year. If we can save several thousand people suffering from this illness, it is worth spending £6 million to get rid of the disease or a large part of it in the first year.

I ask the hon. Member to bear in mind that his right hon. Friend has given me rather dusty answers to my questions in recent months. In fact, his last reply was almost discourteous. This is not a party matter. It is a national matter in which the health of the people and the prosperity of our dairy herds and our export of cattle are concerned. It should be treated on a national basis and not delayed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give some encouragement that the Minister will tackle the problem without undue delay, as he and his right hon. Friend have said they will.

11.17 p.m.

Photo of Sir Timothy Kitson Sir Timothy Kitson , Richmond (Yorks)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) for allowing me a moment or two in which to say a few words. The Minister must get on and tackle this problem. He agitated for action when he was in opposition, and the situation is deteriorating. It is strange that we should be about the only country in Western Europe which has no eradication scheme. Since we had our last debate on the subject, Northern Ireland has practically completed its eradication scheme.

The Ministry has produced figures suggesting that the cost of eradication would be about £40 million. The Veterinary Association and the dairying industry cannot understand how the figure has been produced. Many of us believe that it is because the Treasury is dodging its responsibility and has produced a figure greatly in excess of the actual figure that a scheme would cost. Unless we soon start an eradication scheme we shall be very isolated as one of the few countries still with brucellosis, and the cattle export industry will be extremely difficult. There are already signs that Europe is loath to take cattle on the hoof from us, and one of the reasons is because we are doing nothing to eradicate brucellosis.

The hon. Gentleman should suggest to the Minister that in areas where it is proved that there is a low incidence of the disease, as in some countries where research has been going on and it is known that there is a low incidence, we could start pilot schemes. The dairying industry is attempting to introduce its own pilot scheme through the Royal Dairy Farmers' Association, and I think that many people will jump on this band wagon, and this will make the Minister's task more difficult when he introduces a national scheme in a year or so's time. The Minister must get on with this and not delay any longer.

11.20 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) has raised this subject, because it gives me an opportunity of explaining, on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister, the very great difficulties in the way of a solution. This is a serious problem. I thank the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson) for his contribution, because we know that he has taken a genuine interest in this subject over many years in the House. As the hon. Member for Macclesfield said, this is not a party matter: there is nothing political about it.

I would say to the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, that Northern Ireland is only about halfway to doing the job. The problem there was not so difficult as ours, in that they used far less of Strain 19, which makes for an easier job. Therefore, using them as an example is not so accurate as the hon. Member probably thinks. I agree with him that such a scheme would help our exports.

This is a serious question and nobody would object in principle to eradication. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Macclesfield thinks that my right hon. Friend gave him a dusty answer. I am sure that he did not mean to, as he is as interested in getting the job done as is the hon. Gentleman. I accept the hon. Member's point that when his party were in power there were other things to do concerning animal health and that, to a great extent, these things were done by the previous Government.

Nevertheless, the previous Government did not start on the problem. The only thing they did was to put in hand a scheme of investigation, but did not start on an eradication scheme during the 13 years that they were in office. It is, therefore, a little unfair for Opposition Members to criticise us for taking only a few months to consider the practical aspects of this serious problem.

Brucellosis is a serious disease, both for animal and for human health, and I wish to express our sincere sympathy with the hon. Member in his personal experience of the way in which it can affect not only a man's herd, but his family.

On the question of notification, this is not easy, because there is no other symptom than abortion, which can have many other causes than brucellosis. Also, only a proportion of the animals affected abort. Notification of a disease, unless it is obvious, is difficult. Brucellosis is not like foot and mouth, or other notifiable diseases in animals.

I think that the hon. Members would agree that this disease is not in the same category as bovine tuberculosis, either in its economic effects on the livestock industry or in its effects on human health. The economic effects can be and have been considerably mitigated through the Calfhood Vaccination Service, which is free, and, although the effect of the disease on a human being is most distressing, it is rarely fatal. Although it may be, as some medical authorities state, that there are more cases than the average of 125 confirmed each year, one still cannot compare the seriousness of this with tuberculosis as a major problem of public health.

Nobody questions the seriousness of brucellosis. The hon. Member mentioned the 28 cases in Macclesfield and said that the medical officer there suggested that the figure was more like 1,000 to 4,000, which shows the difficulty of estimating. But the number of cases confirmed is, on average, about 125.

It follows that it would be wrong to adopt direct measures of eradication without counting the cost. In other words, i F we have to send a lot of money, we must consider the best way of spending it, taking into account the interests of agriculture and public health. I do not want to rule out the possibility of a more gradual approach to the main problem and this is under consideration at the moment by the Government.

Estimates were given by the hon. Memher of the cost to the dairy industry of £2 million. The estimate from the report which I have here, and which no doubt he has seen, puts the figure at £1 million, or half his estimate, but if exaggeration makes a point I am prepared to take it. The brucellosis survey of 1960–61, which I have here, showed that about 2 per cent. of dairy cows were infected, and these were distributed among 25 to 30 per cent. of dairy herds.

Photo of Sir Arthur Harvey Sir Arthur Harvey , Macclesfield

When the hon. Gentleman talks about just over 100 human beings infected in a year, does he really believe that when 28 people were being treated six weeks ago in Macclesfield the whole of Britain has only 100 cases? Really, he must get the numbers right.

Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East

These are the number of cases confirmed and I agree there are probably more. The figure of 4,000 has been mentioned, but the hon. Gentleman should realise when putting these figures to us that the problem is nothing compared with the tuberculosis problem.

I was saying that the survey showed that about 2 per cent. of dairy cows were infected and these were distributed over 25 to 30 per cent. of dairy herds. This is the hard core of the problem. Unfortunately, however, there is an added complication, which I mentioned earlier, that Northern Ireland did not have, owing to the widespread use of Strain 19 vaccine among adult cattle.

This is because this vaccine induces the same type of reaction to blood tests as infection does, and as a result we estimate that about 14 per cent. of female cattle of breeding age would react to the diagnostic tests which would have to be used in a scheme of eradication.

This means that if we attempted full-scale eradication of the disease now, as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, and we had to pay compensation on this 14 per cent., the compensation bill, allowing for salvage, would be nothing like £6 million to £7 million. It would be something like £35 million to £40 million.

This figure is based on the experience of the eradication of tuberculosis, and it does not take into account administrative costs, blood sampling, testing, etc. This estimate cannot be regarded as exact, but it is near enough to give a good impression of the amount of money which would be involved.

I do not think we should bandy about figures of £6 million or £7 million if we are talking of carrying out a full-scale eradication scheme.

Photo of Sir Arthur Harvey Sir Arthur Harvey , Macclesfield

What I was suggesting was that a pilot scheme should be carried out in one or two different counties, so that at least we make a start. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will encourage the House to that extent.

Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East

I will come to the point about pilot schemes later. But I would just like to point out that if we were to carry out this full eradication scheme, because of the complication of Strain 19, these would be the figures that might be involved.

The only way to reduce this heavy bill for compensation would be to allow sufficient time for the ordinary processes of culling to remove these uninfected cattle from the national herd which, as I have explained, would at present react to diagnostic tests because of vaccination. This would take some years, and clearly some steps would have to be taken to reduce materially the numbers of cattle which are at present being vaccinated as adults.

If we were to allow time for this to happen, the cost of compensation would be confined to infected animals only, together with the cost of testing and administration. This might be as little as one-quarter of the figure I have just quoted. It would depend, of course, on the scale of compensation and on the number of cattle vaccinated as adults and still remaining in the national herd at the stage when it might be possible to begin full eradication.

The question then arises, taking into account the economic loss to the industry and the number of cases diagnosed each year in human beings, whether or not the money can be found, and when and on what conditions and at what rate it might be possible to find it. These are the questions of principle which remain to be solved. These however, are not the only ones. Even when they have been satisfactorily resolved, there remain technical problems to be disopsed of.

We are inundated with advice—as any Government is—and some people tell us that we should make the vaccination of calves compulsory. This would be difficult. It would virtually mean an enforcement officer on every farm. Besides, it would cut across the policy of those livestock owners who maintain closed herds and do not normally practise vaccination because the health situation in their herds does not make it absolutely necessary.

We have also been advised to start a pilot scheme in a number of different places. This suggestion is not well conceived. The purpose of a pilot scheme generally is to find out whether a certain programme is practicable or not. No one doubts that eradication of brucellosis is practicable. What is in doubt is the method and the cost of doing it. A pilot scheme would throw little or no light on these two problems.

The first and essential step that would have to be taken before any progress can be made at all is to identify those herds that are already brucella-free, or nearly so. The 1960–61 survey showed that 70 per cent. or so of the dairy herds are in this category, but because of adult vaccination many of these herds contain animals which would react to the blood test; the percentage containing no reactors is estimated to be rather less than 20 per cent., but the task of identifying them is not easy. The milk ring test is available for preliminary screening and can readily be carried out in dairy herds. For obvious reasons it cannot be used as a test in beef herds. But even the milk ring test requires confirmation by the blood test and this, too, will cost a lot of money.

Further steps are also complicated. One possibility is a prohibition on the sale of non-brucella-free animals. I find it difficult to believe that the farming community would accept this readily, and it would be impracticable until a large proportion of the brucella-free herds were registered as such. Restriction or even prohibition on the use of S.19 vaccine in adults might be more acceptable, were the marketing of brucella-free animals to be developed. This, in turn, would involve the very difficult question of refusing the only protection available for farmers whose herds have been in contact with contagious abortion. Believe me, I can say as a farmer, and an erstwhile dairy farmer, that this is very important. It is a very expensive business to try to keep a herd free and then to get a contact, not having vaccinated. These are some of the technical problems. There are many other difficult questions to be answered. This is not a simple problem, as the hon. Member suggested it was.

Photo of Sir Timothy Kitson Sir Timothy Kitson , Richmond (Yorks)

Many other countries have succeeded in finding a scheme and the money to introduce it. When Northern and Southern Ireland are quite capable of introducing an eradication scheme, why are we not capable of doing so?

Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East

We are not incapable n any shape or form. I am simply pointng out all the technical difficulties in a country which is giving a free S.19 vaccination scheme, which makes it more difficult here than in Northern Ireland and perhaps in some other countries.

After all, we have had this survey in Our hands only since the beginning of last year or the year before, and we have lad many things to do. We have to look at costs and at the public health aspect. While in no way belittling the importance of getting rid of this problem, I am pointing out the cost which must be taken into account when introducing a fairly big scheme like this. To say that it is a simple matter and that other countries have solved the problem easily and at little cost is not right.

Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East

It is a very costly affair and as a Government we must take this into consideration.

Reference has been made in debate and in Questions to a new strain of vaccine referred to as S.23. I think that the strain is 45/20. This is a dead vaccine which is not so effective as a live one and in many cases does not give the protection given by a single dose of S.19. It requires two doses. There is evidence that two doses give a degree of protection not far short of that given by S.19. The duration of protection given by 45/20 is unknown. We all know that S.19 will protect for five pregnancies. It requires several years before the duration of this protection will be known. For some time experiments have been carried out by the Central Veterinary Laboratory at Weybridge and the Agricultural Research Council Field Station, at Compton, to test its suitability for general use and particularly to see what its effects are on blood reactions on cattle which have previously been vaccinated with S.19.

The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that the Government are doing nothing about it, but we have carried out this survey and we have gone into discussion on this particular survey. We are investigating this, and I have tonight pointed out very carefully all the problems that there are. I assure the House that we have this matter very much in mind and can say that as soon as we have decided on the best action there will be no delay. I ask the hon. Gentleman to understand that we appreciate his personal problems, and the country's problems, and assure him that we shall not forget them by any manner of means.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Twelve o'clock.