Britain's Foot-and-Mouth Disease

UK's Latest Foot-and-Mouth Outbreak

The UK is struggling to contain the latest foot-and-mouth outbreak and to determine its origin. The contagious disease infects cloven-hoofed animals like sheep, cattle, and pigs, and in the last week two Surrey farms in UK have been forced to severely cull their cattle herds to try and contain infection by the disease.

The virus tagged for this outbreak is O1BFS67, similar to a 1967 strain which devastated British farms. The current strain was being produced at two facilities, the Institute for Animal Health (IAH) and Merial Animal Health Ltd (Merial), and investigators suspect the outbreak originated at one of these facilities. Merial is the lab investigators from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs DEFRA are focusing on. As opposed to the 1967 and 2001 cases, the Health and Safety Commission do not think an airborne route caused the infection, rather that the virus was carried to the farms in water or on clothing. There is a stream running between the two infected farms and DEFRA is investigating the possibility of a surface water route of infection.

Investigators also noted that human movement could be a factor. The Guardian reports that a worker from Merial has an "allotment" (small leased vegetable garden) near one of the farms.

National Threats

Countries are vigilant about keeping foot-and-mouth at bay because disease is a costly agricultural threat. City-dwellers and supermarket shoppers don't usually dwell on the threat of foot-and-mouth to their supper prospects, but agricultural interests and government take the disease very seriously.

The Australian Department of Agriculture carries a general warning about severe consequences of an (unspecified) FMD outbreak on their website.

  • "$8 million (Australian) per day cost in control and eradication costs alone (not taking into consideration the effects of the immediate loss of wool, meat and dairy product markets)."
  • "$8 billion dollars out of $12 billion dollars worth of agricultural production being lost in the first year"
  • "the loss of 20 000 to 25 000 jobs"
  • "average cost to each farmer $70 000 in lost income"

The UAE, China, Russia, South Africa, the EU and the US have banned imports of cloven-hoofed animals from the UK. And Prime Minister Gordon Brown has apparently returned to Downing Street from Chequers (not reading The Pet Goat) to chair meetings of the Civil Contigencies Committee, according to the Guardian.

For a agricultural country, maintaining your status as a foot-and-mouth disease free country is critical to a healthy export market. Countries like Australia and New Zealand brag that they haven't had the virus in centuries. New Zealand actually claims they've "never had an outbreak". But the disease carries such bad publicity that if they had contained an outbreak, it might be in their best interest not to speak of it.

When Argentina edged towards ridding their herds of foot-and-mouth in the 1990's, newspaper stories in Australia warned of the potential economic impact on Australia's impending beef exports. Newspapers in various countries routinely trot out warnings about how feral pigs, wild animals, and domesticated imports from other countriese threaten national agriculture.

Airborne, Waterborne, Traipsed In...

The UK's latest outbreak was preceded by one in 2001 and another in 1967. The outbreak that started in England in February, 2001, lasted through October. News of it was finally eclipsed by 9-11. It cost the nation in the range of 8 billion pounds in compensation.

People have also been accused of using the threat of FMD disease for extortion. Others rumor that governments consider the use of FMD by terrorists and that Russia and the US prepared for possible FMD bioterrorism perpetrated by one another during the Cold War.

Tracking down the route of infection can be as tricky as it is important. Researchers who modeled the UK 1967 and 2001 outbreaks suggest that both of these were started by airborne virus. Researchers in the UK been studying the dynamics of airborne infection to better prevent and manage outbreaks. The Institute for Animal Health in Pirbright, Woking, Surrey, UK, published an article last month reporting on the susceptibility of sheep exposed to airborne foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV) strain O/UKG/2001. (Veterinary Journal, July 11).

If the virus is airborne, other factors may influence virulence. Authors, R. Sellers and J. Gloster of the same institute reviewed the literature and found that exposure from different strains, in different species and individuals, along different infection routes, all varied the rate of infection (Veterinary Journal, May 15, 2007). Less understood factors such as meteorological conditions and droplet features may also contribute to infection. They found that cattle were the most susceptible to hoof-and-mouth, followed by pigs and sheep.

To prevent further outbreaks researchers are producing vaccines. In the meantime, limitations have been placed on animal movements. In Woking, Surrey, public notices ask people to report any stray dogs they see.

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