Bovine Tuberculosis – a workshop with views from around the world

btb workshopEarlier this month the Boyd Orr Centre hosted an international workshop on bovine Tuberculosis in cattle and wildlife. First of all, a big load of thanks to Lili Salvador who did most of the organising, and to Hannah Trewby, Joseph Crisp, Tom Doherty, Michael Deason all of whom helped out. We’ll be publishing a full summary soon on the Boyd Orr Centre website, but I’ll record a few first impressions here. We ran four sessions over two days, on the first day these were (i) Risk-based surveillance for bovine TB, with a framing talk by Paul Bessell from the Roslin Institute, and (ii) When is a reservoir host a reservoir host? with framing talks from Clare Benton (AHVLA, Woodchester Park) and Aurelie Courcoul (ANSES in the Maison-Alfort Laboratory for Animal Health) on the first day. On the second day, there was a presentation of results from a workshop survey followed by a discussion of social factors and in particular the role of farmer behaviour. In the final session, Michael Deason presented some of our preliminary results on an extended study looking at whole genome sequencing of Mycobacterium bovis (the causative agent of bovine TB) in Northern Ireland. A few things struck me during the meeting. First of all, it was really striking just how strong the relationship was in France between bovine TB infected wildlife (not badgers, btw, though there are badgers in France) and infected cattle in specific regions. Second, there was a strong consensus of how important the role of the farmer is in the control of the disease, with considerable discussion about how to include farmers in the entire process of bovine TB control. An interesting comment came from Marian Price-Carter, who was visiting us from AgResearch in New Zealand. According to her, in NZ, direct engagement with the farming community has been very successful in helping to move towards eradicating bovine TB. Darrell Abernethy (formerly from DARD in Northern Ireland, but now at the University of Pretoria) pointed out that he did not see the need to study farmer behaviour, since we already know what they are doing and why but instead he thought that we need to create a collaboration to improve communication with the farmers, and understand not just their behaviour but their most important needs and points of view in order to improve disease control. A further comment came from Willie Wint (Environmental Research Group Oxford), who said that in a very different context, for projects he’s been involved with in developing countries, surveys of behaviour only worked where people engaged in a proper dialogue with the local population, rather than simply ‘studying’ them. This reminds me of the concept that every person behaves “rationally”. This may seem like nonsense, but all it really says is that, within the context of an individual’s behavioural drivers, and taking into account the information they have available at the time, then by those rules each person behaves in a rational fashion – that is they make a wrong decision, but those decision will be unbiased around their ‘correct’ decision. Putting this in other words, in a polarised debate such as the one that centres around bovine TB in Great Britain, a proper understanding of the drivers of behaviour and why people make the decisions they do is a vital step forward, though one that all too often we fail to make.

In the final session, we discussed ways in which whole genome sequencing could change our understanding of the epidemiology of bovine TB in Britain and Ireland. This technology is increasingly becoming one of the most important tools for understanding and controlling diseases caused by viruses such as pandemic flu, foot-and-mouth disease and HIV/AIDS, and is now becoming cheap enough to use for bacteria. It was used, for example, to refine our understanding of the E. Coli outbreak in Germany a couple of years ago. Because of reducing cost, we are on the verge of being able to extract the entire genetic code (or close enough to this as not to matter) of bacteria taken from every animal we can it from; this means tracing changes in the genetic code down to the herd and badger social group level, and in some cases down to the animal level. And a detailed understanding of how the disease spreads, such as we’ve not seen before. Here in Glasgow we were the first to apply the technology to bovine TB in cattle and badgers, and while our study was small, it showed the potential to fundamentally change our understanding of the transmission amongst cattle and badgers. Especially due to the controversy surrounding the evidence base for understanding bovine TB in Britain, getting the science right is critical. Watch this space for further developments …

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One comment

  1. Bovine TB – behaviour and decision making
    Formulation of critical drivers underpinning destructive/risky actions is a central challenge for applied psychologists working with behavioural change. One difficulty is a natural tendency for others to make assumptions about what is driving someone’s behaviour. A common error is the notion that people will behave “rationally” (e.g. according to assessment of an external reward such as money) hence a failure to consider the complex mix of behavioural motivators such as habit, intellectual capacity, personality, environmental stressors etc. Assumptions of investigators are shown in many ways including closed authoritative questioning styles and use of questionnaires that implicitly assume the investigator already knows the answer. A difficulty for the discipline of psychology is that, by necessity, human beings develop “expertise” on behaviour of others as part of making a way in the world. I suspect this can lead to a dismissive approach towards the discipline as just giving a name to something that everyone knows about already (I do have sympathy with this position in some respects). Yet, for situations where human behaviour causes damage and risk, the challenge of getting beyond erroneous assumptions about why people act is serious and live. In the 1990s the police service in England and Wales recognised this by introducing guidance about the most effective ways of interviewing witnesses and suspects based on psychological research. The push to develop and refine ways of engaging people to reveal critical factors maintaining their behaviour is a rapidly moving field for different strands of applied psychology. Some of the most encouraging advances in theoretical understanding and applied methodology have emphasised assessment of readiness to change from the individual’s perspective, motivational enhancement techniques, problem formulation based on systematic assessment of the range of influencing factors and the critical role of social identity and networks. Within such approaches the assessment process becomes part of the intervention – i.e. gaining a useful answer about why someone is acting will involve engaging them to provide their unique perspective so drawing them into a process of reflecting on their behaviour etc. As such, in areas of applied psychology where behavioural change really matters (e.g. forensic work with violent offenders, addictions, changing destructive cycles in mental health), current thinking has advanced beyond the idea that the first step is non-involved “study” of behaviour. This message is highly relevant to considering human behavioural factors in the spread of bovine TB. Integration of psychological theory and allied methodologies has significant potential to contribute to work on bovine TB; a challenge for psychologists is to engender recognition of an evidence-based approach with a distinct application.
    ruth rushton, forensic and clinical psychologist

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