Saving Buffalo from Bovine Tuberculosis

© Roger de la Harpe
Treatment for bovine TB is totally impractical in free-ranging buffalo.Dr Lin-Mari de Klerk- Lorist has devoted her time to the study of bovine tuberculosis (BTB) in buffalo, with the hope of finding an effective vaccine to slow the spread of the disease in the Kruger National Park (KNP). Although a few results are still outstanding from the last field trial, indications are not good that it will be feasible to use vaccines to prevent the spread of BTB in Kruger in the near future.

Her research has, however, revealed other aspects of how the disease progresses in buffalo, particularly with respect to their social structure. Buffalo seem to be what is known as a 'maintenance host' for bovine TB, living for a long time in reasonably good condition once infected with the disease.

While looking physically healthy, they can spread the disease to a lot of herd members and a variety of other animals, making the disease a long-term threat.

Vaccination Versus Other Control Measures

Treatment for bovine TB is totally impractical in free-ranging buffalo. To be successful, drugs need to be given frequently and for a long period of time, which would involve continually darting thousands of animals. Park management ruled out culling all animals that test positive for BTB, which is how the disease is treated in domestic cattle.

Before the disease was so widespread in Kruger, fencing diseased buffalo herds off from uninfected herds was also rejected as a control measure.

If a suitable vaccine could be found, buffalo calves in Kruger could get immunity to the disease through vaccination, and grow into healthy adults without catching the disease from other herd members.

This would help control the spread of the disease, especially in herds where a low percentage of individuals are infected. As bovine TB is a problem in other wild animals around the world, Lin-Mari began her work on a TB vaccine in New Zealand. There, BTB is a problem in red deer.A vaccine similar to that used in humans, the BCG (Bacille-Calmette Guerin) vaccine, was found to be 95 percent effective against BTB in deer. Returning to Kruger, she first did research on how healthy buffalo can be infected experimentally with the bacterium that causes bovine TB.

Once that had been established, she could start testing the BCG vaccine. Using yearling buffalo calves that were caught in the north of the park, the first vaccine trials were carried out in bomas near Skukuza.Half the buffalo were vaccinated with the BCG vaccine, while the other half were untreated. They were all then exposed to a dose of the bacteria that Lin-Mari had previously established would cause BTB in healthy animals.

First Trials Show Some Positive Results

In these trials, it appeared that the BCG vaccine was having some positive effect on the animal's immunity, as only a few of the vaccinated animals developed active TB. In an animal with active TB, large growths form in lymph nodes and organs.
These showed up clearly in the majority of the yearlings which were not vaccinated, but only in a few of the vaccinated animals. However, Lin-Mari found that the BTB bacterium could be cultured in the laboratory from tissue samples taken from some of the vaccinated animals that showed no other signs of TB.This meant that the vaccine was not protecting the calves from infection. As the study had been carried out in bomas, the animals were exposed to a lot more stress than would occur naturally, and stress is known to prevent an animal's immune system from functioning at its best.

To try and simulate natural conditions more accurately, a second BCG vaccine study was carried out using buffalo yearlings that were allowed to be free-ranging in a 100ha enclosure after they had been caught in the wild and then vaccinated.This trial also looked at how readily the bacterium passed between the healthy yearlings and some adult cows that were taken from BTB infected herds in the south of the park. After a year of being in the same enclosure together, the yearlings had not caught the disease from the adults.

Social Interactions Affect The Spread Of BTB

Lin-Mari suspects this is because of how the buffalo formed social groups. The cows that were introduced to the yearlings never spent much time with them in the enclosure. They preferred to spend time with their own calves and other females that had calves or were pregnant, largely ignoring the yearlings. This meant that Lin-Mari had to give the yearlings a dose of Mycobacterium bovis, the bacterium that causes BTB, and then check for disease again.Although a few lab culture results are still outstanding, examination of the animals' lymph tissue shows that the vaccine was only able to prevent active BTB in half of the vaccinated animals. In the yearlings that were not vaccinated, two-thirds developed the characteristic BTB esions.

Interestingly, there were clear differences between the sexes in the numbers of animals that developed active TB. In both the vaccinated and non-vaccinated animals, far more females than males developed lesions. This was most obvious in vaccinated buffalo, where three times as many females got active TB than males.

More Females Than Males Get BTB

This seeming difference in immunity can also be linked to buffalo behaviour. As the buffalo were under close scrutiny while in the enclosure, Lin-Mari was able to see that the adult females in the enclosure would assert their social dominance over the yearling females, putting them under social stress.

As the study group had not included older males, the yearling males did not have to compete with adult bulls, and so had a more carefree social existence. This is reflected in their more robust immune system.This shows that stress can cause TB to progress faster in buffalo, a finding that links up with human studies. Natural physically stressful events like the onset of puberty and pregnancy and lactation also have an effect on the immune system, and so implications for the progression of TB. This also ties in with New Zealand studies on red deer, where lactating mother deer showed faster disease progress than other female deer.

Vaccine Failures Linked To Foot And Mouth

When discussing why the BCG vaccine did not work against BTB in buffalo, Lin-Mari suggests that another disease may have a large role to play. Buffalo are carriers of foot and mouth disease (FMD), which is caused by a virus. Foot and mouth is widespread in Kruger, and buffalo are silent carriers of the disease. However, when a buffalo is first exposed to the FMD virus, its immune system still has to fight the virus.It seems that in the yearling buffalo, the young animal's immune system is so busy creating immunity to foot and mouth that it fails to produce the correct response to the BCG vaccine. The vaccine normally creates immunity by causing a change in how the animal's cells respond to the TB bacteria, making them able to destroy real TB bacteria if they are ever exposed to it.

In the yearling buffalo, it seems that this process is interfered with by the immune reaction to FMD, because there are some major differences between immunity against viral versus bacterial infections.

Hope For The Future

Lin-Mari is hoping to find further funding to explore the use of the vaccine in calves younger than six months. These calves are still drinking their mother's milk, and through this get some maternal immunity to foot and mouth. If the BCG vaccine were used in this window period, it might allow the calves to develop complete resistance to BTB.

One problem with using the vaccine on such young animals is that they would require two vaccinations, spaced six weeks apart. This is impractical for use in the field, so a vaccine that would only need a single jab would be better.

Bacteria New To Science Found

Although the study was not successful in paving the way for a BTB vaccination programme in Kruger, it has shed light on the circumstances that would cause an infected buffalo to die faster. It has also revealed that the BTB bacterium did not survive very long in the buffalo's drinking trough, and so a herd of diseased buffalo will not contaminate drinking water for other animals for any significant period of time.And in the way that nature continually throws up surprises, the search for the BTB bacteria in the drinking water turned up a totally new kind of Mycobacterium, which doesn't seem to be causing any diseases in buffalo, but is unknown to scientists. This new species of bacteria has gone to have its DNA unravelled, to find out what its role in the environment is.
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