Foot and Mouth Disease Scares England

LONDON, UK, August 8, 2007 (ENS) - There are now two confirmed cases of the dreaded foot and mouth disease in Surrey cattle, and animal health authorities are on high alert for more cases as they work to contain the outbreak and determine its cause.

On August 3, UK Chief Veterinary Officer Debby Reynolds confirmed the presence of the viral disease on a farm near Wanborough, in Surrey. A protection zone of three kilometers (two mile) radius and a surveillance zone of 10 kilometers (six miles) were placed around the premises, and all the cattle on the premises have been culled.

On Monday, a second infected premises was confirmed on a farm within the protection zone, and 97 animals on that farm have also been culled.

Movement of cattle across the country has been halted. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy Freefoto)
Reynolds yesterday ordered culling on suspicion of foot and mouth disease on a third farm, this one adjacent to the second infected premises in the protection zone.

On Saturday is was confirmed that the strain of virus found on the first farm was not recently circulating in animals, but is the same as that used for vaccines at an animal disease research site three miles from the farm.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said today that the virus was held at both the Institute for Animal Health and Merial Animal Health Ltd at Pirbright. An urgent assessment of biosecurity is underway at the institute.

Referring to a Health and Safety Executive report on the causes of the outbreak, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said today that that the chances of the virus being transmitted by air or by surface water from the Pirbright facility were "negligible."

The government is undertaking a "major effort" to "isolate and control" the foot and mouth outbreak the prime minister said.

Investigators are now looking at the drainage systems at the Merial plant as well as the possibility of human transmission.

Foot and mouth disease, sometimes called hoof and mouth disease, is a highly contagious and sometimes fatal viral disease of cattle and pigs. It can also infect deer, goats, and sheep, as well as elephants, rats, and hedgehogs.

The Health Protection Agency advises that foot and mouth disease is not a direct public health threat.

The Food Standards Agency considers that foot and mouth disease has no implications for the human food chain. Because the virus that causes the disease is sensitive to stomach acid, it cannot spread to humans through consumption of infected meat.

A warning sign on an Irish fence during the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease (Photo courtesy Oxford College of Emory University)

An outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom in the spring and summer of 2001 was caused by a different strain of the disease. That episode saw more than 2,000 cases of the disease in farms across the British countryside. Around seven million sheep and cattle were killed in a successful attempt to halt the disease outbreak.

Foot and mouth is a disease of cattle and very few human cases have ever been recorded even though the disease is endemic in animals in many parts of the world including Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America.

"Foot and mouth disease only crosses the species barrier from cattle to human with very great difficulty. The last human case reported in Britain occurred in 1966.

The disease in humans, in the very rare cases that have occurred, is mild, short-lived and requires no medical treatment," British health officials say.

To control this current outbreak, a national ban preventing the movement of susceptible animals across Great Britain, except for Northern Ireland, remains in place.

Footpaths and bridleways in the first protection zone have been closed but otherwise the countryside remains open.

After veterinary review, the decision has been taken to permit the movement of live animals direct to slaughter, and the collection of dead animals from farms from 00.01 hours on Thursday. These general licences will only apply outside of the protection and surveillance zones.

Reynolds told a news conference on Wednesday that these movements of animals would be allowed only under strict licensing conditions, including biosecurity measures on farms, in transport and in abattoirs.

"I continue to urge all farmers and all others involved to take the highest level of biosecurity measures and to follow the conditions of the licences in every respect," she said.

Other movements of livestock, such as sending animals to market, are still banned.

Richard Ellison, regional director of the National Farmers Union, welcomed the relaxation of the animal movement ban. The approval of transport licenses would bring "some return to normality and would help "limit the damage" to the livestock industry, he told reporters.

On Monday, Prime Minister Brown has visited the affected area of Surrey. He met with local representatives of the National Farmers' Union and staff at a regional disease control center in Reigate.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown meets with animal health officials in Reigate. (Photo courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)
He thanked local farmers for their "support and understanding" and promised that "no resource will be spared" in dealing with the infection.

"We have more than 150 people out in the field making sure it is possible to carry out tests and check the area," Brown said. "We also have hundreds of people around the country doing a magnificent job to make sure all the preparations to control the disease are carried out."

"This is a major national effort, the focus of which is to contain and control the disease and then eradicate it," the prime minister said.

Speaking to journalists during the visit, Brown said it is important to keep an "open mind" about the source of the infection.

In Brussels today, the European Union's Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health voted unanimously to continue an EU export ban on British meat and livestock until August 25. The committee will meet again on August 23.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.