Science - December 17, 2009

Slaughtering goats: How should we tackle Q fever?

The Netherlands will be slaughtering dairy goats on 55 of the 400 goat farms in order to prevent the spread of Q fever. Should the uninfected goats on the 55 farms be vaccinated or killed?

Copy_of_20-geiten-ANP-115673931.jpg

Mart de Jong, professor of Quantitative Veterinary Epidemiology:
'It is easy to say with hindsight that things have gone wrong in the goat farming sector. However, it is clear that infected farms should not have been allowed to come into contact with other farms. The vaccine that is available does not yet guarantee sufficient protection for animals against Q fever. I don't think it's a good idea to vaccinate if you don't know exactly what the vaccine does and what it will achieve. Vaccinating may reduce transmission of the disease but that is still unclear. Given that, you can question whether you should go down that road.'
'It is not right to slaughter pregnant animals unless there are compelling reasons to do so. The abattoirs are not used to doing this, either. But you have to do something if people are getting sick and dying. I don't think you can avoid slaughtering all the animals on an infected farm. Testing individual animals costs a lot of time and you are highly likely to miss infected animals. What is more, healthy animals will in all probability become infected at a later stage; after all, they are in an environment containing Q fever bacteria. The vaccine does not yet provide a safeguard against this happening.'
'Slaughtering the animals in an abattoir has the advantage of being done in an environment properly equipped for the purpose. It is possible to slaughter animals on the farms in an animal-friendly manner but it is very distressing for the owners or carers involved. There are also care farms with Q fever and they would have a real problem with slaughtering on location. Taking the animals off the farm is better because people's emotions are important too.'  
Marianne Thieme, leader of the parliamentary Party for Animal Rights:
'Slaughtering thousands of goats is political opportunism. They knew that there were problems on goat farms as early as 2007 and yet they didn't take any measures. The minister insisted on more research into Q fever but in the meantime the farms continued to grow. If measures such as fewer goats per farm and a ban on expansion had been taken immediately back then, we would have been able to prevent the current problems. For the past two years it has been possible to transport goats without any problems, despite the fact that this increases the risk of the disease spreading. The newly developed vaccine was unfortunately not available in sufficient quantities and so the minister should have taken alternative measures.'
'The Wijffels commission said back in 2001 that we should scale down intensive livestock farming. Following the problems with swine fever, we see that some pig farmers have turned to goat farming, with the same problems arising. The goat is now the scapegoat, but really it is the sector that is guilty of causing this immense problem. Though I do think something has to be done with infected goats as they are a threat to public health. But it is unethical to slaughter all the animals on infected farms. That is why I think we should test the individual animals. The slaughter of infected animals should be carried out in as animal friendly a manner as possible.
Animal welfare and public health go hand in hand. I hope this animal health crisis will have made people think.' 
Elsbeth Stassen, professor in Animals and Society:
'I am against the slaughter of healthy animals. I am a vet and I was closely involved in the previous crisis, combating fowl pest. Slaughtering healthy animals leads to enormous mental pressure on livestock owners, vets and other people involved.'
'Unlike in previous outbreaks, they are now starting to vaccinate against Q fever. I assume they are using a marker vaccine so that you will be able to distinguish between vaccinated dairy goats and infected dairy goats. Hopefully there will be the capacity to screen all the goat farms and test the individual goats. That will allow the uninfected goats on infected farms to be spared. You do not need to slaughter animals on the farms without Q fever - you can't justify that from a moral point of view. Goats on a farm that test positive due to the inoculum do not need to be slaughtered either. You only need to slaughter goats if they test positive due to bacterial infection. In such a case there is a high chance of abortion and of Q fever being spread further, and there is a substantial threat to public health.'
'We have researched the Dutch people's opinions on the mass slaughter of animals to prevent the spread of animal diseases. The majority are against the killing of healthy animals in infected areas, except in the case where not killing them would have serious consequences for public health. The association of veterinary surgeons, KNMvD, does not want any more healthy animals to be killed. At the moment the media is focussing on the public health aspect. I am expecting a return of the heated debate on killing healthy animals once the slaughtering gets under way.'
Henk den Hartog, veterinary surgeon:'The increasing criticism of intensive livestock farming is justified. The high degree of occupancy means there is a much higher risk of diseases, like Q fever now. But farmers are being forced to continually increase the scale of their farms, with the inevitable consequences.'    
'In principle, I am against the slaughter of healthy animals. Ideally, I think you should selectively slaughter infected pregnant goats as the Q fever bacteria are to be found in the amniotic fluid of pregnant animals. That is a way of getting rid of a locus of infection. You should vaccinate the healthy animals to prevent possible infection. However, we don't know how well the vaccine works. It is also a huge job to test all the individual animals and I wonder whether it is feasible logistically.'
'The argument that it is unethical to slaughter healthy animals is one-sided. We do it all the time in factory farming to produce the meat we eat every day. In the case of Q fever, we are killing animals not for consumption but for public health purposes. Animals were slaughtered for economic reasons during the foot and mouth crisis - that is a very different matter.'
'Slaughtering the animals in an abattoir has the advantage that you can use the meat. However, there is a risk for the abattoir workers; imagine if they punctured a uterus by mistake! There is also much more stress for the animals due to the transportation. An early birth during transportation would be a major source of infection. Slaughtering on the farm is unpleasant for the owner but is more animal friendly. It does mean that the meat is wasted.'

Re:act