BLANCH: A groundbreaking anaesthetic and antiseptic spray for a painful animal management practice has won the backing of a global pharmaceutical giant. The spray, marketed under the name of Tri-Solfen, was developed by a Sydney-based research scientist and paediatrician Doctor Meredith Sheil, to relieve the pain of mulesing for lambs. Mulesing has come under fire from animal rights activists who say it is cruel to cut skin folds away from sheep’s hindquarters to prevent fly strike.
Dr Sheil who also has a sheep farm in the New South Wales Central Tablelands, hopes the deal will take her invention around the world and eventually stop activists from targeting Australian wool.
BLANCH : So Meredith, as your invention is designed as a pain management tool for sheep farmers in the practice of mulesing, let’s start with mulesing and what it is, followed by the consequences for sheep if they do not have the procedure.
DR. MEREDITH SHEIL : Mulesing is a procedure that is performed on sheep when they’re very young and it involves cutting away the loose or excessive folds of skin on the hindquarters of the lambs. It’s done to form a scar area around the hindquarters, which protects the sheep against getting infested with fly-blown maggots.
BLANCH : What happens to a sheep after their infested with something like that? I can’t imagine what that must do to it.
DR MEREDITH SHEIL : Oh, it’s the most debilitating condition. It’s incredibly painful for sheep. The maggots are flesh-eating maggots and they basically just eat the little lambs alive. So it’s a very important procedure to protect lambs against this really quite devastating condition.
BLANCH : So where does the name mulesing come from?
DR MEREDITH SHEIL : It’s named after an Australian stockman, a Mr J. Mules, who was the first to develop or propose a procedure back in the 1930′s actually.
BLANCH : So this treatment of yours is a three-in-one pain relief spray, so what does the treatment contain?
DR MEREDITH SHEIL : Well, it contains two very strong and quick-acting local aesthetic agents which make the wound go numb almost straight away. But on top of that, it contains agents which are designed to address wound healing and wound management basically. It contains an agent that has an effect to stop bleeding that works very quickly as well, an antiseptic agent to prevent infection and it also comes in a gel base that is designed to coat the wound, and provide a kind of barrier effect that protects the wound.
BLANCH : So what did you believe the product had to do for sheep growers to use this effectively?
DR MEREDITH SHEIL : It certainly had to address the pain issue, that is one of the main welfare issues affecting the Australian wool growing community at the minute and it certainly needed to come up with something that was going to address the issue of pain during the procedure in the lambs. But on top of that, I thought it was important that it was practical and effective, very safe to use so that farmers could just perform the procedure themselves and also to address the wound healing.
BLANCH : Well you’re a paediatrician and you treat surgical and trauma wounds in children. So is there pain relief for the lambs as they undergo the surgical removal of these folds of skin or is the spray used only after the skin removal operation?
DR MEREDITH SHEIL : The spray is put on immediately after the cuts are made and it is sprayed directly onto the wound and goes to work straight away. It’s very difficult to come up with a way of actually anaesthetising the area before the cuts are made. You may be aware, a way of doing that would be to inject local anaesthetic in the area and wait for it to go numb before you cut. But if you’ve ever had local anaesthetic injected, you’d be aware that that procedure is actually very painful in itself and, in fact when you have a sudden sharp cut with a very sharp knife, it actually isn’t all that painful. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a big wound, but often you look at the wound, and you think, ‘Oh my God, that’s going to hurt’. It takes a while for the pain to actually kick in. So for the moment, the best option I think is to do the cut very quickly and then spray this pain relief on straightaway afterwards.
BLANCH : What’s its viscosity?
DR MEREDITH SHEIL : It’s a thick gel. I guess people would be most familiar may be with hair gels or something like that. It’s that sort of viscosity. And it’s sprayed on through a pump pack that farmers are very used to using, because they use this similar sort of thing for fly sprays and agents like that.
BLANCH : And how long does the pain relief last for these four weeks old lambs, that’s about their age isn’t it when this is done?
DR MEREDITH SHEIL : That’s right. They are done quite young, that’s to take advantage of the immaturity of the nervous system and quick recovery periods. But the anaesthetic–so far we have been looking at how effective the agent is, even out to 8 hours, and even 8 hours the anaesthetic agent with the barrier affect of the gel is providing quite extensive pain relief.
BLANCH : So in your studies with the product, in what ways did treated lambs recover compared with untreated lambs after mulesing?
DR MEREDITH SHEIL : After mulesing, lambs display pain in a very characteristic way. They tend to get very stiff and hunched-up and when you look at them you can see that they’re trying to hold themselves very still and not move and that causes problems with reduced feeding, not being able to keep up with their mother. We call that failure to mother up. And when we have looked at the lambs that we’ve treated with the pain killing agent, the little lambs just run off and to look at them, it’s almost as if they’ve had nothing done. They keep up with their mums, they feed well they don’t get this kind of hunched-up look where they look like they’re trying to run away from the pain or stop the pain from happening. So it’s been really thrilling to look at how well they look.
BLANCH : Meredith, there are agreements in place that mulesing is to be phased out by the year 2010, so are there no alternatives to mulesing?
DR MEREDITH SHEIL : The Australian Wool Industry is pouring huge amounts of money in research into looking at developing alternatives for mulesing and researchers from the Australian Wool Innovation – AWI – are confident that they are going to be able to come up with an alternative to mulesing. At the moment they’re saying by the end of 2007 or early 2008.
But I think it’s important to be aware that these things are still in the research and development phase and what we need to do is have alternatives or strategies in place so that if there are delays or complications with these research and development proposals actually coming onto the market, that we have other ways of addressing what is a serious animal welfare issue.
BLANCH : Wool producers are very concerned about retailers who are under pressure from animal rights groups. So by using a treatment such as yours to relieve pain, what will it mean for the wool grower in the marketplace?
DR MEREDITH SHEIL : The Australian Wool Industry has made commitments to our retailers that we will be addressing this animal welfare issue by using pain relief as soon as it’s commercially available and also looking at implementing pain-free alternatives as soon as they become available.
So Australian wool growers that do adopt the pain relief and support these ongoing measures to develop pain-free alternatives will be able to market their wool under a label such as ‘ethically produced wool’, which retailers overseas will then be able to buy and consumers will be reassured that wool that they are using is from sheep managed according to the highest animal welfare standards.
BLANCH : So after lambs, what do you believe the product could be used for during other procedures in other animals in the future?
DR MEREDITH SHEIL : Well, that’s the exciting thing about this product is that it actually has potential to be applicable for a wide range of animal procedures.
As you’d be aware there are an awful lot of procedures that are performed on animals without any sort of pain relief whatsoever and all of them are causing animal welfare issues and this includes things like castration, tail docking and in particular de-horning and branding and a spray-on topical anaesthetic agent like Tri-Solfen has the potential to reduce pain significantly in all these procedures and we’ll be looking to develop products for these procedures in the future so that farmers can address these painful procedures as well.
BLANCH : So with the multi-national pharmaceutical company, Bayer, taking over the licensing and marketing of the treatment, where does that leave you?
DR MEREDITH SHEIL : I’m incredibly excited about the fact that Bayer have taken over the development and marketing of Tri-Solfen. They’re as you know an international company with huge resources in terms of product development and marketing and I think they really have the potential to develop this product for all those markets and I think that that can only be a benefit to farmers going into the future, to help address the animal welfare issues and solve the kind of battle that is going on between animal welfare groups and farmers.
BLANCH : Research scientist, paediatrician and sheep farmer, Dr Meredith Sheil, who has created an anaesthetic and antiseptic spray to relieve the pain of mulesing for lambs.