Government must step back from Mycoplasma bovis

As I write this on 20 May 2018, New Zealand is at a crucial point in deciding how to manage Mycoplasma bovis. There are no good options. The worst option is for the Government to try and be the boss.

So, who should try to manage Mycoplasma bovis?

At the national level, the answer is ‘no-one’.  Farmers must make their own business decisions and take responsibility for those decisions.

Elsewhere in the world, governments do not try to manage Mycoplasma bovis. It is up to farmers to do this.

The role of our Government should be to continue monitoring at the national level using sampling techniques. But trying to identify all infected animals so as to eradicate the disease, and even trying to limit stock movements, this will be counter-productive.  Government has neither the resources nor the expertise. And the mess will just get bigger and bigger.

Currently there are about 300 herds across the nation in lockdown.

According to the MPI Minister Damien O’Connor the situation is a disaster, worse than foot and mouth disease.   Well, I can’t agree with that.

Foot and mouth would indeed be a national disaster. In contrast, Mycoplasma bovis is a disaster for MPI and some farmers, but not for the nation.    The qualification to that statement is that it does indeed have the potential to become a national disaster if MPI and the Government do not step back.

A current epicentre of the disease would seem to be in Mid Canterbury, some 150 km north of the first identified Mycoplasma positive properties in South Canterbury, and several hundred kilometres north of the likely original infected properties in Southland.

On 17 May, according to Minister O’Connor, an additional 50 properties in the Ashburton District were given a Notice of Direction (NOD) that prohibits animal movements without a special exemption. This came as no surprise. They were on the list of properties to be so notified for more than a week, but staff shortages had delayed the implementation. It is likely that a significant proportion of these properties will be confirmed as Mycoplasma positive.

A key issue in the South Island is that most dairy farmers winter their cows on support blocks away from the milking farm. These animals need to be going to the support farms right now. So, across the South Island, but particularly in Mid Canterbury, we have a situation where movement-restricted cows are in a different location from their feed.

Quite simply, these cows need to go to where the feed is. Otherwise there will be an animal welfare disaster.

In the North Island, the situation is somewhat different. North Island cows are typically wintered on the milking farm, so less animal movements are needed. However, many sharemilkers do need to move their herds to a new farm at the end of this month on Movement Day. Currently, there are no restrictions on that except for NOD properties.

Although most infected properties are in the South Island, more infected properties are also likely to be found in the North Island. In that context, last week’s Waikato announcement should have come as no surprise – there are at least two other provisional positives in the Waikato, plus others elsewhere in the North island, and this has been an open secret for some time.

Some commentators have been suggesting that we should manage the disease in the short term but still work towards long term eradication. However, the epidemiology of this particular disease is such that this is unlikely to happen. No other country of the world – and Mycoplasma bovis is present in all the main dairy producing countries – is attempting to do this.  Unless some new technologies come forward, this disease is always going to be with us.

In the long term, it may be possible to produce a vaccine for Mycoplasma bovis. However, I do not know of anyone currently working on this.

The hard reality is that all farmers now need to manage their own situation, supported by advice by their veterinarians and other rural professionals with whom they work.  We know the risk factors. It is simply a case of making sure that these risks continue to be communicated, and then decisions must be made for each farm in the context of its specific situation.

Perusal of online comments demonstrates the ongoing lack of understanding in relation to this disease. MPI has to take considerable responsibility for this.

It was MPI who decided to focus on forward tracing from the original identified properties rather than also focusing on backward tracing, and who thereby created the impression that the disease started in 2017 with the Van Leeuwens in South Canterbury. That was always unlikely.

This flawed messaging also created false optimism in relation to eradication. This in turn created false optimism amongst farmers in other districts that it was not going to be their problem.

MPI now accepts that Mycoplasma bacteria were present in New Zealand at the start of 2016. But among my informal networks, there is no-one who is confident that this is time zero. The debates that we have, based on various pieces of evidence, include whether time zero was around 2014, or whether time zero was even earlier than that.

With hindsight, it seems that the battle between Mycoplasma bovis and MPI was always going to be a victory for Mycoplasma bovis. For it to be otherwise, MPI Biosecurity would have either had to stop its first entry to New Zealand, or else have identified the first incursions before they had spread.

Clearly there have been major deficiencies in NAIT (the national animal tracing system) but this is not the reason that Mycoplasma is currently out of control. Much more fundamental to the issue is that Mycoplasma had a head start, probably of several years.

There will also need to be hard questions asked about MPI itself – not the individuals but the system. Within my networks, which include people working directly on the Mycoplasma project, there is frustration that field-level understandings get lost as messages flow up the chain.

I would like to see MPI staffed at the highest levels by specialists rather than by managers drawn from totally different fields of expertise. From the website, I can see a ten-member senior leadership team with military experience, social development experience, communications experience and even a love of ballet. But apart from one forester and one agricultural economist, I cannot see any signs of people with experience of how things actually happen out in the field, nor an understanding of relevant sciences which determines how different diseases must be attacked differently. If the expertise is there, it is not evident.

I have significant doubts as to whether lack of funding is a key cause of the current situation. More likely, it is about organisational culture. It also needs to be recognised that generic management taught in MBA type programs may not be the ideal training for a Biosecurity Unit.

Questions now have to be asked as to whether or not we have appropriate systems in place in case of a foot and mouth disease outbreak. I cannot answer that.

Foot and mouth disease would play out very differently than Mycoplasma bovis. If Mycoplasma bovis is a stealth bomber, then foot and mouth disease would be a nuclear event.

With foot and mouth disease, there would need to be immediate 100 percent accurate tracing of animal movements of the preceding days and possibly weeks, but not long term historical movements. There would need to be immediate and total lockdown on all animal movements across the country. Emergency vaccinations may need to be part of the toolbox.  All scenarios would need to have been thought through in advance.

With Mycoplasma bovis, it is evident those scenario analyses were not in place, so perhaps they are also not in place for foot and mouth disease.

Coming back to the immediate issues of Mycoplasma bovis, the key constraint going forward may well be for Government itself to recognise that it does not have the capacity to either eradicate or manage Mycoplasma bovis. The idea that ‘we are the Government and we are here to help you’ may well be an oxymoron.   Can Government understand this?

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.

15 Responses to Government must step back from Mycoplasma bovis

  1. Steve McCowan says:

    Thanks Keith, lets hope the powers to be can read and understand and then action what you have said. The unknown cost (at farm gate) of an M Bovis outbreak is still a large unknown given that nobody understands how severe an outbreak on a farm can/may be. MPI have not recorded the animal health stats of any of the known M Bovis farms, thus its difficult for us farmers to quantify the potential losses we may incur.

    • Matt Walker says:

      Steve, are you aware of the severe health implications and risks that your operations pose to not just farmers, but to the wider public in general? The comment seems to insinuate it is only farmers that will incur losses as a result of this mess, however this actually has wide ranging implications for human disease outside of the farm.

      As far as I can tell, large animal vets have conflict of interest, as they generate almost all of their income from employment within the animal agriculture industry. MPI have the same conflict of interest for similar reasons.

      How many biomedical scientists and disease control experts are being adequately informed and included in the harm mitigation process? It seems those who care about human health over dairy farm profits are being left in the dark on this one.

  2. Pingback: New fund for biosecurity? | Homepaddock

  3. Honora Renwick says:

    Regarding development of a vaccine for Mycoplasma bovis. I ran across a specialist in this field today (animal immunologist) and he indicated there was nothing in the pipeline as far as he knew and likened the situation to brucellosis where no vaccine was used to eradicate it either.

    • Matt Walker says:

      That usually wouldn’t sound surprising, but there are several vaccines currently available. They are relatively recent developments, which might explain why that person isn’t aware of them. Unfortunately that is unlikely to solve this problem, though.

      To make things worse, MPI is telling people Mycoplasma bovis can’t transmit to humans, and they’ve been allowing infected animal carcasses into the food supply. But scientists first isolated Mycoplasma bovis in a human patient way back in 1979. I struggle to believe MPI don’t have access to those research documents, anyone who knows how to type a few words into Google can find the publications. Good luck finding an MPI article being honest about that, though. Consult the independent scientific literature, that you’ll find published in peer-reviewed journals:

      “The genital tract of both male and female animals can also harbor M. bovis and can be a source of the infection through coitus and natural service (Kreusel et al., 1989) or through artificial insemination with deep frozen bull semen (Jurmanova and Sterbova, 1977) as mycoplasmas can survive in frozen semen for several years. Milk may also be a source of infection which acts as major source of infection for suckling calves (Pfutzner, 1990; Hirose et al., 2001). It has also been reported from sheep (Bocklisch et al., 1987), goat (Egwu et al., 2001), rabbits (Boucher et al., 2001), Poultry (Hasan et al., 2008) and can be transmitted from these carrier animals and birds. Isolation of M. bovis from human respiratory disease (Madoff et al., 1979) is suggestive of human carriers. Mycoplasma bovis are quite resistant to environmental conditions (Nagatomo et al., 2001) therefore, the transmission through fomites and mechanically can also not ignored.”

      Clap clap clap:

      As a side note: During my undergraduate studies I asked if our university would consider an immunology programme. I was told at the time that immunology wasn’t important. Years later, during my postgraduate studies, we had visiting researchers from the hospital oncology department writing exam questions on immunotherapy of cancer. It is not only important, but probably the most promising option we have for treatment in that area. The bottom line is, the people in charge haven’t got a clue as to what is actually going on in the world around them.

      “Species that infect humans
      Other species of Mycoplasma other than those listed below have been recovered from humans, but are assumed to have been contracted from animals. These use humans as the primary host:

      M. amphoriforme
      M. buccale
      M. faucium
      M. fermentans
      M. genitalium
      M. hominis
      M. lipophilum
      M. orale
      M. penetrans
      M. pirum
      M. pneumoniae
      M. primatum
      M. salivarium
      M. spermatophilum[8]”

      Mycoplasma species have been isolated from women with bacterial vaginosis.[3] M. genitalium is found in women with pelvic inflammatory disease.[9] In addition, infection is associated with increased risk of cervicitis, preterm birth and spontaneous abortion, and infertility.[10] Mycoplasma gentialium has developed resistance to some antibiotics.[11] Mycoplasmae are associated with fetal respiratory distress syndrome, bronchopulmonary dysplasia, and intraventricular hemorrhage in preterm infants.[3]”

      • Matt Walker says:

        Now let’s wait and see how long it takes for my comments to start getting censored 😉 Don’t blame me, though, I’m just quoting publicly available scientific research. Don’t shoot the messenger.

      • Keith Woodford says:

        Yes. I am aware of all of this material .And so are some of the MPI scientists. But the MPI leadership team may not understand much of this.

        My recollection of the human case is that it was a woman who was immune compromised andthat the illness responded to antibiotics. Also, it would have been nice if the diagnosis could have been independently confirmed.

        It is important that we do not conflate Mycoplasma bovis with other Mycoplasmas.
        It is also important to recognise that people have been eating milk and meat containing Mycoplasma bovis (and billions of other bacteria) all over the world, probably since Adam was a boy. Cooking and pasteurisation will destroy Mycoplasma bovis and a lot of other organisms that are much more nasty.
        Keith W

  4. Jocelyn Poland says:

    Hi Keith
    Fascinated by your blog discovered in the past few days as I contemplated buying ATM shares as they fell on Friday, and continue to fall today.
    My question is- how will the detection of M.Bovis affect farms producing A2 milk? It must be possible/probable that their herds could be culled under the current Govt management policy with some difficulty in replacing these, though I see from your blog that the large operators can redeploy to concentrate A2A2 herds. Dealing with mycoplasma in people, not cows and genetics being a study of the past, I still would have thought that detection would be catastrophic on production, restocking timelines dependant on breeding and the share price not recovering any time soon… I see one large scale farming operation is refusing government access.

    • Keith Woodford says:

      These are some big questions.
      I never give advice in relation to the value of ATM shares.
      I understand cow behaviour, and also farmer behaviour, perhaps also consumer behaviours. But share market behaviours is another thing again. Perhaps herd behaviours is the best analogy in terms of understanding share markets.
      As for Mycoplasma, you will see from my blog that I am involved in trying to provide some sanity to the situation here in NZ, and currently it is taking much of my time. One would hope that we would learn to manage the disease as other countries have learned to do. Right now, it is a worry. But it is unlikely to be a forefront issue for A2 as either a brand or a category of milk.

      • Jocelyn Poland says:

        Sorry, I never expected NZX comment! Just trying to do my own research in avoiding the herd mentality. Did see your note that you had sold your ATM shares because of conflict of interest.
        Thanks for your reassurance that you can’t see M Bovis as a major issue for the brand or category of A2 milk, management is a real mess and good luck in shining some light on the situation, will keep you busy but much appreciated by all, I’m sure.
        Jocelyn P

      • Matt Walker says:

        Like other countries? What, like the European industry that loses over 500 million Euro every year as a result of this disease alone? Can any reputable scientist really refer to this sort of disaster management as something to hope for? Sorry if the truth might offend farmers, but that simply cannot magically render it fiction. I wonder what the industry really contributes to net GDP if it were actually made to pay for all of the environmental and human health damage it is responsible for…I can’t see how the industry could possibly be making a net positive contribution unless it ignores all of the harm being caused outside the farm gates.

    • Matt Walker says:

      You’ve probably dodged a bullet, IMO. Consider the % of the population adhering to plant based diets in New Zealand alone – “With meat-free diets in the news, Roy Morgan Research has found the proportion of Kiwis who say the food they eat is all, or almost all, vegetarian has grown 27% since 2011—with growth sharpest among a few key groups: 14-34 year-olds, North Islanders, and men.”.

      People are realizing more and more by the day, particularly younger people, that meat & dairy are on the way out. Love it or hate it, it’s surely a bad investment under the present climate.

      • Matt Walker says:

        ^And this research was carried out before 99% of us had heard the word Mycoplasma. Imagine what it’s going to look like now, in 10 years time.

  5. Matt Walker says:

    As far as I can see, farmers either covered it up, and/or certainly failed to prevent it. If it’s been here as long as I suspect it has then it must be the norm on farms for animals to be looking sick. There’s no use pretending it doesn’t cause obvious symptoms, penicillin resistant mastitis, head droop, even discharge from the animals. Government clearly helped to cover it up, as well as failed to mitigate it, and the new Government continue to fail to be honest with the public about their capacity to eradicate it. Damien O’Connor doesn’t have the experience or the qualifications to deal with this, and also has a track record for animal abuse and dishonesty.

    Farmers seem to think this only hurts them, but it hurts the animals, it hurts the people who get sick due to coming into contact with it, and it hurts the people who need antibiotics to work, that have to deal with antibiotic resistance due to both government and farmers a) govt. allowing routine wide scale use of antibiotics on farms, and b) farmers who are seemingly all very eager to start dousing the animals with them. The worst part with respect to that is it doesn’t have a hope in hell of actually eradicating the disease, but it will certainly contribute to drug resistance, an already serious problem that we are struggling to address as is – without others contributing to it further.

    So who should be responsible at a national level for dealing with it? Neither government, nor farmers, as they have both had their chance and royally stuffed it up. Hand it over to disease control experts, hand it over to biological scientists, not large animal vets that have conflict of interest in seeing their main avenue of revenue go out the window. Agricultural scientists couldn’t even tell you which anitbiotics are effective, evidently, and certainly don’t want people to find out all of the negative implications that come with going down that road.

    I don’t see why the rest of us should have to get hit. both in the pockets as well as paying with health consequences. to try and save an industry that has done very little for any of us of late. That ship has surely sailed, and if either of the above were upstanding people they would accept it and pass the responsibility on to those who might have a remote chance of reducing the impact to the wider public, reducing the suffering of the animals involved, and potentially eradicate it if government and industry would ever allow that. But until industry & govt, and agricultural institutions, are willing to front up and admit this, I can’t see it happening.

    I’ll eat my hat if this disease isn’t costing us greatly, in a plethora of ways, in 10 years time. Tim Mackle ought to put his money where his mouth is, and lay down a large bet on that.

  6. Matt Walker says:

    “Quite simply, these cows need to go to where the feed is. Otherwise there will be an animal welfare disaster.”

    One thing we agree on. Unfortunately this industry is an animal welfare disaster in and of itself. I can’t see industry caring much about that.

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