Washington monitors foot and mouth

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Washington monitors foot-and-mouth

Sunday, 4 March 2001 21:19 (ET)

Washington monitors foot-and-mouth

By KURT J. SAMSON, UPI Science Writer

The first outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom in 20 years has created a near-panic among European health and agriculture officials. While the disease does not cause serious illness in humans, it is both highly contagious and deadly to cows, pigs, sheep and goats. The disease is readily transmitted -- it can travel over 40 miles on the wind, or be carried on clothing, shoes or even in shipping containers.

Tens of thousands of farm animals have been slaughtered to halt the disease's spread, and the European Union has banned British exports of animals, meat and milk. Animals imported from Britain are being slaughtered in Germany, France and the Netherlands, and steps are being taken by Belgium, Poland and other countries to keep the virus away.

On Friday, the British government said that it would begin allowing transportation of farm animals from areas not affected by the disease, and some limited personal travel.

Since 1954, U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists at Plum Island Animal Disease Center, just off the northeastern tip of Long Island, N.Y., have studied the most dangerous animal diseases that are not present in the United States, but could pose a major economic threat to agriculture here.

Foot-and-mouth disease can infect any animal with cloven hooves, including goats and deer, even bison. The Plum Island facility takes the risk of contagion so seriously that they kill any deer that swim to the island to ensure that they do not pick up any stray virus and carry it back to the mainland.

United Press International interviewed Plum Island Director, Dr. David Huxsoll to ask his opinion on the U.K. outbreak and whether the disease poses any risk to the United States.

Huxsoll has written or co-written more than 100 scientific publications. He is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Society for Microbiology. He was the team leader of the second United Nations' Biological Inspection Team sent to Iraq in September and October of 1991, and was chief inspector for another U.N. inspection team in September 1994.

Q: If foot-and-mouth disease was eradicated here in 1929, why hasn't it been eradicated in the United Kingdom?

A: In fact, until now it had been eradicated in the U.K. There was a pretty dangerous outbreak in England in 1967 and another small one in 1981. After each outbreak they were able to eradicate the disease. But these things always come back. For instance, between 1996 and 1999, 75 countries around the world reported outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. There is still a lot of this disease around.

Q: If the disease doesn't threaten people, why is there so much concern? Isn't it purely economic -- having more to do with trade embargoes by other countries?

A: It is not a public health problem. People can become infected but it isn't serious, maybe a blister on the mouth or tongue. But economically it can be a huge problem. If we had an outbreak here in the United States, we would go off the global market immediately. And once an embargo is placed on a country's meat and dairy products, it may not be lifted for a year. That would have a severe impact on our economy.

Q: What might be the economic consequences of an outbreak in the United States?

A: The total value of animal and agricultural farm products in the United States is about $100 billion, and of that we export perhaps $50 billion-$60 billion. Of course, most of this is grain and crops. Our red meat and dairy exports are at around $12 billion.

But that figure would increase seven-fold, [the cost would be $84 billion] if there were an outbreak, and it only takes one case, theoretically, to shut down the market. If you look at a map of Great Britain you see cases all over the place. It would be impossible to isolate one state or region here in the United States if there, the entire market would be affected.

Q: Is it possible to contain a disease that is this contagious and so easily transmitted?

A: In the United States we won't accept any meat or dairy products from the U.K., nor will any other country with foot-and-mouth disease-free status, until we are sure that it is free of the virus. For instance, if you have a case of foot-and-mouth at a slaughterhouse, you have to burn all the animals as well as the rendering facility.

Fortunately the burning process destroys the virus. Foot-and-mouth is actually rather easily destroyed unless it is protected in some way, such as in meat, milk, cheese or manure. In optimal conditions, say in refrigerated milk; it can stay around for weeks, or even months. That is why an embargo cannot be lifted as soon as the last diseased animal is destroyed. We have to wait. An outbreak among swine in Taiwan in 1997 cost that country $7 billion. They have completely lost that market and continue to have problems.

Q: Isn't a lot of the panic we're seeing a residual overreaction to mad cow disease?

A: The two diseases are completely different, but Great Britain has had a string of bad luck, starting with mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, several years ago and another recent outbreak of swine fever. The problem is market perception.

Q: Does the USDA have an effective sentinel "early warning system" for this disease?

A: Every veterinarian across this country has been sensitized to the foot-and-mouth risk. If they even suspect a case, they will rapidly report it to health officials at USDA. It is very important that we confirm cases as soon a possible, and that is why they send suspected sample specimens to us here at Plum Island. It would not take long for the disease to establish itself, so rapid reporting is essential.

Q: Do you honestly think we can keep the disease out of the United States. given the large number of visitors to United States from the United Kingdom?

A: We've been very fortunate in this country. It's a combination of USDA protecting our ports of entry and just plain luck. We have to be very alert and keep a close watch on people and products coming in from affected countries. To a certain extent, the U.K. has essentially stopped the outbreak.

They have stopped people from visiting farms in the countryside, cancelled sporting events, even horse races. But more important, they immediately began to confine people, animals and vehicles from the outbreak areas, and then destroyed the affected animals.

Q: So then it's more than just luck that no cases have surfaced in the United States?

A: The fact we have not had an outbreak here since 1929 is a good indication that we are doing something right. These surveillance policies work if they are followed. We just have to stay vigilant. -- Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), March 04, 2001

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