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Experts call for action to tackle threat of TB infections from cattle

Researchers are calling for global action to tackle the threat of tuberculosis infections that are passed to people from cattle.

Adrian Muwonge

Experts warn that failing to tackle the problem will thwart efforts to eradicate tuberculosis (TB), which causes serious lung infections and can be fatal.

TB is a bacterial infection that is usually spread through coughs and sneezes. Infections in people are primarily caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

People can also become infected with the cattle strain of the bacteria – Mycobacterium bovis – from infected animals or by eating contaminated food.

Front line treatments for TB are not effective against the cattle strain and the bacteria can be spread through food supplies such as unpasteurised milk and dairy products.

The disease is of particular concern in low and middle income countries, where people live in close contact with livestock.

Researchers say the scale of the infection is not known because surveillance of the disease – known as zoonotic TB – is weak.

Leading veterinary experts and authorities from global public health and agriculture agencies are calling for coordinated global action to tackle the problem.

They say efforts to monitor zoonotic TB should be stepped up worldwide. The use of improved diagnostic tools should be expanded in order to gain accurate estimates of the number of people affected.

The group – which included researchers from the University of Edinburgh – set out their recommendations in acommentary in the Lancet Infectious Diseases ahead of the 47th Union World Conference on Lung Health, convening in Liverpool, England, October 26-29.

Their proposals follow a major consultation organised by the World Health Organisation and The Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease. Dr Adrian Muwonge of the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute chairs the Zoonotic TB subsection at the Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease which initiated these discussions.

Dr Adrian Muwonge, member of the EERA group in the Division of Genetics and Genomics said: “Two years ago the Union gave the zoonotic TB sub section a mandate to develop a global awareness campaign on zoonotic TB, which we have successfully done.  We are now taking the next steps to ensure global policy is formulated to cement clear priorities for tackling the disease.”

TB infections in cattle cause major economic losses from livestock deaths, chronic disease and trade restrictions. In some developed countries, eradication programmes have reduced or eliminated TB in cattle and cases of the disease affecting people are rare.