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N Z Vet J. 1999 Aug;47(4):133-42.

Effects of sustained control of brushtail possums on levels of Mycobacterium bovis infection in cattle and brushtail possum populations from Hohotaka, New Zealand.

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  • 1Landcare Research New Zealand Ltd, Private Bag 11052, Palmerston North, New Zealand.



To examine the effect of reducing the abundance of brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) on the distribution and prevalence of bovine tuberculosis (Mycobacterium bovis, Tb) in possums and the incidence of Tb in domestic cattle on a group of farms in the central North Island, New Zealand.


The cumulative yearly incidence of Tb infection from 12 cattle herds was estimated from annual tuberculin testing and abattoir inspection data over the period 1983-98. Intensive control of possum populations began for six of the herds in 1988, five herds in 1994 and the remaining herd in 1996. The prevalence and distribution of macroscopic M. bovis infection in possums and an index of possum abundance was estimated during yearly cross-sectional surveys from 1988 to 1998. This enabled formal testing of the link between the abundance of tuberculous possums and the incidence of Tb in cattle.


Before possum control, infected possums were clustered in foci on or adjacent to the farms with the highest annual incidence of tuberculosis in cattle, and had an overall prevalence of macroscopic M. bovis infection of 2.3%. The prevalence of disease declined to zero with ongoing possum control, although infected possums continued to be found during the first 5 years of control. Maintaining the possum population at an average of 22.1% of its pre-control density significantly reduced the odds of the cumulative yearly incidence of Tb in cattle by 77% during the first 5 years of possum control and a further 65% in the second 5-year period. Nine of 11 tuberculous possums identified since the start of possum control were found within the areas where infected possums were clustered during the pre-control survey, suggesting that the persistence of infection within these clusters rather than infected immigrants was the source of ongoing disease. Annual estimates of the prevalence of tuberculous possums broadly followed the predictions of Barlow's possum-Tb model for a controlled possum population.


The results support the hypothesis that tuberculous possums transmit bovine tuberculosis to domestic cattle, and therefore that reducing the abundance of tuberculous possums reduces the incidence of Tb in cattle. If the level of possum culling is sufficient, it appears that M. bovis infection may be eradicated from possum populations. Better information on population density, rate of increase and annual culling rates would have been needed for a truly independent examination of the Barlow possum-Tb model.

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