The social science of Mycoplasma

Usually when animal disease strikes, the advice and expertise of the veterinary sciences is sought. But recent outbreaks such as Foot and Mouth in the UK in 2001 have led to the recognition that the social sciences should also play an important role in the management of animal disease, a guest article on Sciblogs points out.

They should also be important to help understand and manage the impacts of Mycoplasma in New Zealand.

Dr Gareth Enticott, Cardiff University, UK, Dr Anne Galloway, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ, the authors of the article, acknowledge there are some important differences between Mycoplasma and the UK’s FMD outbreak. They also say there is a remarkable similarity between the two events.

Taking lessons from social studies of animal disease, they write, the following issues should be of concern for all involved in the management of Mycoplasma:

1. Trust
In 2001, the outbreak of FMD in the UK was accompanied by a complete breakdown in trust between farmers, vets and the Government (Poortinga et al., 2004). Why was this? Partly because of organisational inefficiencies and a perceived cultural distance between London (where policy was made) and the countryside (where policy was delivered). The impact was to make eradication harder as decisions were challenged.

To be sure, the importance of trust in disease eradication is not unknown to New Zealand: in the early days of the bovine Tuberculosis eradication programme, farmers and vets were distrustful of officials from Wellington, refusing to test their cattle and even going on strike (Enticott, 2017). Distrust of government advice has affected other disease programmes in the UK (Enticott, 2008) and Australia (Palmer et al., 2009).

The lesson for policymakers is to engage rather than lecture, and to work in—and with—the communities that they are serving rather than from a distance. Trust is also maintained through transparency of decisions made, activities to be undertaken, and in the clarity and consistency of information provided.

2. Education and Awareness

Improving awareness and education of a problem like Mycoplasma and its consequences is often assumed to be the best way to get people to ‘do the right thing’. In fact, this style of communication is often shown to have little or the opposite effect – and is magnified where trust is in short supply.

In animal disease control the same is true. Studies have shown that farmers develop and rely on their own understandings of disease processes. They share stories and accounts of expected and unexpected incidents and these can drive decisions whether to implement biosecurity advice (Enticott, 2008).

Cattle movement restrictions may be something that New Zealand farmers will need to get used to, and will bring pre-existing NAIT compliance issues into high relief. But for other diseases, analysis of the regulations and communication of risk advice shows that many farmers make ‘risky’ cattle purchases (Hidano et al., 2016) or ignore risk assessments in favour of their own explanations of disease susceptibility (Enticott, 2016).

In fact other studies have shown how animal disease regulations may promote ‘risk compensation’ – the protection provided by biosecurity measures and financial compensation may be compensated for by other risky behaviours (Wiethoelter et al., 2017). As Mycoplasma eradication unfolds, it will be important to look for and monitor these effects. Acknowledging, and working with, farmer expertise will help mitigate some of these risks and their effects.

3. The Politics of Expertise
Diseases are political: whether a disease deserves to be eradicated depends on social and economic processes, and the power of vested interests to turn a disease into a problem (Woods, 2004). What this means is that disease outbreaks inevitably become the focus of dispute and contestation because there is no certainty around why some diseases should be eradicated whilst others are left to farmers to deal with.

Consider, for instance, differences between the management of Mycoplasma, bovine TB, BVD and Johnes disease. At the same time, the forms of expertise used to justify disease controls, such as the contiguous slaughter policy used during FMD, reflect political choices (Bickerstaff and Simmons, 2004). In this case, it was a preference for a command and control style of epidemiological modelling versus the more nuanced but uncertain field knowledge of local vets. These political choices can therefore usher in new styles of disease control.

As the eradication of Mycoplasma unfolds, particularly if it is unsuccessful, watch for these disputes between different disease control experts and how they are adopted by different political groups. Of particular interest will be how long the authority and expertise of MPI holds, how local veterinary advice will be received, and what these disputes will indicate about the governance of agriculture in the long term.

4. Social Impacts
Finally, media reports have rightly featured the social impacts of Mycoplasma suffered by those farmers, for example, who have been made to send heavily pregnant cows to slaughter and others who will lose a half-century of selective breeding, Recognising and understanding these impacts is an important part of managing animal disease outbreaks.

As previous research of events like FMD in the UK have shown, the effects of losing cattle in whole-herd slaughter policies can result in severe emotional trauma leading to new recommendations for the National Health Service on the best ways to cope with the increased stress felt by farmers and their families (Mort et al., 2005; Nerlich et al., 2005). It is not just the untimely loss of cattle that causes emotional trauma, but the stress of navigating bureaucratic procedures and regulations (Hood and Seedsman, 2004). Maintaining consistency in the rationale for movement restrictions, and the culling of some animals but not others, will not only foster trust between farmers and government, but help maintain social ties between farmers.

How MPI publicly justifies its actions and demonstrates support for farmers will also impact broader social responses and public sentiment. Vets and other rural professionals involved in the management of disease may also suffer, and providing time and places to talk through and share the experiences of their work is a key recommendation from this research (Convery et al., 2008; Hood and Seedsman, 2004). If not, as others have shown, the mental health consequences of managing disease outbreaks may ultimately lead them to abandon farming (Lehane, 1996) or their careers (Enticott, 2018).

For the eradication of Mycoplasma what is important is not just to fully resource rural mental health services, but to recognise that it is human behaviour that drives these social impacts. If Mycoplasma needs eradicating, then developing a caring, compassionate response that answers to the consequences of killing 126,000 cattle should be a priority. This response will also need to be flexible and adaptable, as the impacts will vary amongst decision-makers, farmers, vets, livestock transporters, meat processors, and future consumers of animal products.

And finally, the social relationship between people and animals will, and should, be put under ethical scrutiny. What will be used to justify the untimely slaughter of that many animals—and will that lead to a public backlash against livestock farming in general?

Bickerstaff K and Simmons P. (2004) The right tool for the job? Modeling, spatial relationships, and styles of scientific practice in the UK foot and mouth crisis. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 22: 393-412.

Convery I, Mort M, Baxter J, et al. (2008) Animal Disease and Human Trauma: Emotional Geographies of Disaster, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Enticott G. (2008) The ecological paradox: Social and natural consequences of the geographies of animal health promotion. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33: 433-446.

Enticott G. (2016) Market instruments, biosecurity and place-based understandings of animal disease. Journal of Rural Studies 45: 312-319.

Enticott G. (2017) Navigating veterinary borderlands: ‘heiferlumps’, epidemiological boundaries and the control of animal disease in New Zealand. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 42: 153-165.

Enticott G. (2018) International migration by rural professionals: Professional subjectivity, disease ecology and veterinary migration from the United Kingdom to New Zealand. Journal of Rural Studies 59: 118-126.

Hidano A, Carpenter TE, Stevenson MA, et al. (2016) Evaluating the efficacy of regionalisation in limiting high-risk livestock trade movements. Preventive Veterinary Medicine 133: 31-41.

Hood B and Seedsman T. (2004) Psychosocial Investigation of Individual and Community Responses to the Experience of Ovine Johne’s Disease in Rural Victoria. Australian Journal of Rural Health 12: 54-60.

Lehane R. (1996) Beating the odds in a big country. The eradication of bovine brucellosis and tuberculosis in Australia, Collingwood, Australia: CSIRO.

Mort M, Convery I, Baxter J, et al. (2005) Psychosocial effects of the 2001 UK foot and mouth disease epidemic in a rural population: Qualitative diary based study. British Medical Journal 331: 1234-1237.

Nerlich B, Hillyard S and Wright N. (2005) Stress and stereotypes: Children’s reactions to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK in 2001. Children and Society 19: 348-359.

Palmer S, Fozdar F and Sully M. (2009) The effect of trust on West Australian farmers’ responses to infectious livestock diseases. Sociologia Ruralis 49: 360-374.

Poortinga W, Bickerstaff K, Langford I, et al. (2004) The British 2001 Foot and Mouth crisis: A comparative study of public risk perceptions, trust and beliefs about government policy in two communities. Journal of Risk Research 7: 73-90.

Wiethoelter AK, Sawford K, Schembri N, et al. (2017) “We’ve learned to live with it”—A qualitative study of Australian horse owners’ attitudes, perceptions and practices in response to Hendra virus. Preventive Veterinary Medicine 140: 67-77.

Woods A. (2004) A Manufactured Plague. The History of Foot and Mouth Disease in Britain, London: Earthscan.

Source: Sciblogs

Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog

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