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Tuesday, July 20, 1999 Published at 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK


Deadly cattle bacteria study starts

The study aims to quantify the infection risk

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

An international study into how infections are transferred from cattle to human meat-eaters has begun.

It will focus on food-borne diseases that originate in animals, such as salmonella poisoning and the 1996 outbreak of E. coli 0157 infection in central Scotland.

BBC Scotland's David Calder reports
The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, will cost £3.7m and last five years.

The trust says it will also look at new and emerging "zoonotic diseases", those that can cross between animals and humans, like BSE.

Professor Mark Woolhouse at Edinburgh University is leading the study.

[ image: Precautions or not, infection is hard to prevent]
Precautions or not, infection is hard to prevent
He told BBC News Online: "We know cattle are a major reservoir of enterobacteria, but because animals who carry the bacteria rarely suffer clinical disease, we cannot estimate the scale of the problem".

Enterobacteria may cause infections by transmission through contaminated meat and dairy products and are a serious threat to human health, especially to vulnerable groups like the elderly and the very young.

"What we propose to do is find out how widespread cattle infection is and how, if at all, enterobacteria disease is transmitted from cattle to humans," said Professor Woolhouse.

He added: "All our decisions on food-borne pathogens should be based on the best possible scientific knowledge, and that's what this study is about".

Cross-disciplinary work

The study involves scientists, medical and veterinary experts from the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow; Imperial College in London; Emory College, Atlanta; and colleagues from Germany and Canada.

It will include a study of 500 Scottish beef farms conducted with the Scottish Agricultural College.

[ image: Scotland's E.coli outbreak in 1996 affected almost 500 people]
Scotland's E.coli outbreak in 1996 affected almost 500 people
The findings, combined with existing data, are expected to build up a comprehensive picture of the prevalence in cattle of enterobacteria.

Specifically, the researchers will be studying how enterobacteria are transmitted from farms to human populations, and tracing how and when cattle become contaminated.

They will look at the genetic structure of enterobacteria in both cattle and humans, study why some bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, and help to design control programmes.

The trust says it hopes the study will produce the first data of this kind on enterobacteria and will also help public health and food safety agencies to develop strategies to protect people.

But the study is essentially about basic science, not public health.

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