Mycoplasma bovis: the ground has shifted with a megathrust

Events of recent days demonstrate that eradication of Mycoplasma bovis from New Zealand is no longer a realistic option. The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) is scrambling to get its messaging together. New strategies are now needed.

As I write this on 13 May, the MPI website still refers in its text material to 38 infected properties. But the latest version of the infection map from MPI tells a very different story (see below).

It is apparent from comments by BioSecurity NZ Chief Roger Smith to a Parliamentary Committee on 10 May, that the sudden growth in infected and suspected infected properties has come as a big surprise. That may well be so to the Wellington officials, but it will be much less of a surprise to those who have been working closer to the cows.

Amongst the vets and rural professionals close to the action that I talk to, we always saw this situation as a strong possibility.  I said in my first Mycoplasma article back in August 2017  that eradication was going to be challenging and I repeated that increasingly strongly in the four subsequent articles that I wrote.

The key reason many of the professionals have seen things differently than MPI is that we were never convinced that the identified outbreak on the Van Leeuwen farms was where the organism first took root. And as the number of infected farms increased, our doubts increased.  There were too may non sequitors for that to be the case.

Over time, it seemed increasingly apparent that the reason MPI was finding infection on particular properties was because those properties were being investigated (for various reasons) in much more detail than other properties. It became apparent that the bulk milk tests were very weak and often non-effective, and that one had to search much deeper.  And when one did scratch below the surface, then the Mycoplasma organism, if not the disease itself, would increasingly be found.

For several months, my own view has been that the disease was in Southland from at least 2014 and possibly before that. But whether even that was ‘ground zero’ is a moot point. There is considerable discussion that it might have been around for even longer. And in terms of how it got here originally, there are alternative hypotheses as to the most likely pathway, but none of us actually knows.

MPI’s big mistake has been to first downplay the likelihood of it being here prior to 2017, which led to overemphasis on the Van Leeuwen farms, and then more recently to only focus back to the start of 2016. Essentially, they were saying ‘trust us’, we are the experts.

What we now have to do is cast aside, at least for the short term, the questions of who has ‘stuffed up’. But given the track record, we must retain doubts as to MPI’s ability to now find the path ahead. They are clearly not as expert as they wanted us to believe. And I do note in passing that amongst their nine-member senior management team, none lists a science education within their MPI website CV.

To find the path ahead, we need to look at how the disease is managed overseas. From what I can see, overseas governments get right out of it and leave the industry to find its own way.  There is a lot of sense to that.

DairyNZ, Beef+Lamb, and Federated Farmers are the three organisations that now need to step up and collectively work together on this.

For individual farmers, the key messages are already known but do need to be further communicated. First, whenever new animals come onto a farm, there is an unavoidable risk.  That means rethinking farming systems.

Second, feeding ‘hospital milk’ to calves is a guaranteed way to spread any disease that is present. In addition, all cows, but colostrum cows in particular, should be kept well away from hospital cows. Once a cow is identified as having the disease, then strict isolation is necessary until she can be removed from the farm.

There is more to learn about possible manifestations of the disease under New Zealand conditions. Overseas experience indicates some between-country differences.

Unexplained arthritis in cows and calves, ear infections particularly in calves, and four-quarter mastitis in cows including in the weeks prior to calving, are all clear warning signs. Pneumonia in calves is another sign, but pneumonia has other potential causes.

What the industry needs collectively is explicit protocols as to information rules for animal purchases. All purchases need to come with a signed declaration as to the known status of the selling farm.  This status has to be explicit as to whether the farm is known to be infected or is a farm that has been identified for tracing purposes. Prior incoming animal movements over at least the three preceding years need to be stated. This information will not eliminate risk, because vendor farmers may have the disease without knowing it, but it will reduce the risk and allow purchasers to make considered decisions.

All livestock firms need to get on board urgently with these protocols.

The big message that the industry now needs to give to the Government is that Government must now step back. Unlike if there were a foot and mouth outbreak, which would have huge national ramifications, Mycoplasma is something that industry itself can best manage.

Perhaps the trickiest part for Government is precisely how to now step back. Should the compulsory slaughter stop immediately? Should farmers who are part way through an eradication be given the option to either continue with the slaughtering or retain those animals that remain?

These short-term issues of extrication are indeed important, but the fundamental issue is the overall need for Government to step back.

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
This entry was posted in Agribusiness, Dairy, Mycoplasma bovis. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Mycoplasma bovis: the ground has shifted with a megathrust

  1. Matthew Grierson says:

    As I’ve listened to the headlines I formed the impression that MPI didn’t have any idea where the originating source of MVP was.
    With numbers jumping to 199 farms, it reinforces my suspicion – that they still don’t have a clue.
    Trying to track who brought it in it now is now a futile exercise.

  2. Robert says:

    I really think the cull must stop now! The compensation can’t cover the heart break let alone the actual costs that infected farms are incurring. Beautiful animals are getting wasted. Peoples lives and relationships will crumble over this cull.
    Most (all?) spread of the disease seems to be through stock movements. That is manageable. Keep testing by all means. Try and find an effective test that is definitive and cheaper/quicker than bloods like the TB test. If we know where the diseases is the industry will manage. As the theoretic date of introduction is moving further into the past, we may find we have been managing it for the last decade without knowing.

  3. Aldous MacIvor says:

    Keith, Thank you for the very good articles.
    I have been researching papers from the U.K, U.S. and Australia to become better informed on Mycoplasma bovis, but what has really puzzled me is why MPI cannot seem to resolve practical issues in the fishing, forestry or agriculture industries. The fact that senior managers have no education in science would seem to provide a valid answer. Perhaps in addition to strategy changes in farm management at farm level, it is time to quarantine MPI activities and cull senior managers.

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Thanks Aldous,
      I have today received an email from a former senior MAF leader who has expressed his astonishment at the lack of science background within senior MPI these days. It seems that the dominant paradigm within the Civil Service is that overarching skills of management do not require an understanding of context. These managers ‘receive advice’ but would seem to lack the contextual experience to ask the key insightful questions, and thereby guide policy in useful directions.
      Keith W

  4. Andre Lategan says:

    Hi Keith
    Given that humans can get sick from other species – birds, pigs, etc., why is this different? Mad cow disease transferred to humans. You write “…‘hospital milk’ to calves is a guaranteed way to spread any disease…” So the disease is present in milk.
    Are humans really immune to this disease? Why?

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Yes, the organism can definitely be present in milk. Mycoplasma bovis is a very fragile organism with no cell wall, and that may be why it does not affect humans, but that is still not a very good answer as some gram negative bacteria (i.e. those without cell walls) such as E. coli can move between species.
      Given that Mycoplasma is present in almost all of countries of the world I think we would know if it did transfer to humans, but so-called ‘facts’can change. To the best of my knowledge no country in the world monitors Mycoplasma at a regulatory level – it is simply up to farmers what they do about it.
      One thing we do know is that pasteurisation kills Mycoplasma – it cannot stand heat.
      Anyone who drinks unpasteurised milk needs to understand that there are lots of animal diseases that, unlike Mycoplasma bovis, can be passed to humans in unpasteurised milk.
      Keith W

  5. Pingback: Rural round-up | Homepaddock

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