Disease's huge ramifications

As the number of cattle destined for slaughter continues to rise, some horrific stories are being told of the human effect of Mycoplasma bovis.

In May, the Government and industry made the brave call to embark on a phased eradication programme in a bid to rid the country of the bacterial cattle disease.

No other country has attempted such a programme and it comes at a hefty cost, with a price tag of about $886million.

But that cannot be compared to the cost the disease is taking on farmers - and rural communities - throughout New Zealand.

It was hard not to be moved by the raw emotion when a man stood up at a recent M. bovis public meeting in North Otago and reluctantly identified himself as ``farm No39 infected''.

Response from his own community was mixed when neighbours were informed of the discovery; some was pleasing, some was ``bloody horrible''.

Justifying its decision not to publicly release the names of those affected, an MPI spokesman said there were stories of children being bullied at school, feed suppliers refusing to go on to properties for fear of reaction from other clients, and entire herd sales cancelled just because a blood test had been taken.

North Otago farmer Kerry Dwyer - one of the first farmers affected by the disease - has been outspoken in his condemnation of MPI's response.

The toll on him was obvious as he warned those affected were going to lose money, sleep, time, stock and friends.

A Cabinet paper that helped the Government make the eradication decision said farmer welfare was of ``real concern''.

In the most acute cases, mental-health impacts were concerning and there was an ongoing risk of a farmer self-harming ``or worse''. It does not get more serious than that.

Since the decision was made, more properties - as was indicated would happen - have been found. A thousand animals here, another 1339 there, and so the list goes on.

All destined for the meatworks and all adding to the lengthy list of rural folk and their families affected by the disease.

In December last year, when it was first discovered in the North Island, MPI's director of response Geoff Gwyn said in a radio interview it was ``not the end of the world''. It was not a food safety risk and had no impact on the country's ability to trade milk and meat products.

Try telling that to those farmers who have seen the fruits of generational effort to build herd bloodlines and productivity being loaded on to a stock truck for a one-way trip.

Or for those former sharemilkers who spent time living in a leaky caravan in Australia, their lives devastated by the disease.

Or the stoic farmer with the crack in his voice - already under financial pressure due to irrigation development to transform a traditionally dry area - as he explains how the disease has destroyed his dairy grazing business on the farm that has been in his family since 1921.

The ramifications of this disease and the flow-on effects are huge and wide-reaching. Those affected must be supported by their communities and industry.

Compensation must be promptly paid so they can get back to some sense of normality as soon as possible, and MPI's much maligned communication must be top-notch. Investigations must also continue into how the disease arrived in New Zealand.

It was recently revealed that an independent Technical Advisory Group was split on the likelihood of the success of eradication. Four members no longer believed it was achievable.

Uncertainties related to testing, incomplete records and animal tracing, make it difficult to find all of the infected properties.

The feasibility and costs of eradication will be reassessed later this year, following spring testing, when the disease is at its most detectable. That cannot come soon enough.


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