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From Diana J. Choyce
Mar 12 -25, 2001

In early March the latest outbreak of foot and mouth disease was reported in a slaughterhouse near London after a twenty year absence. Already thousands of British-exported animals have been destroyed. Also there have been cancellations of sports events, Britain's biggest dog show, Crufts, and even Dublin's St. Patrick's Day parade. Some may think the measures being taken against the virus are drastic. But this disease is so devastating, that any cautions are far better than none. "Maybe it's better to be a little bit too cautious in this situation," says Anders Engvall of the Swedish Veterinary Institute. Experts say it is extremely difficult to contain an outbreak of foot and mouth, a highly contagious virus that infects cloven-hoofed animals like sheep, goats, cows and pigs. The early symptoms include lameness, slobbering (the mouth sores increase salivation) and affected animals go off their feed. Humans can be infected , but in very, very rare circumstances. In the last big outbreak in 1967, one person caught it, and a child was suspected of having it. Symptoms in humans are mild, and the disease is not life-threatening.

All across Europe similar precautions are being implemented in hopes of keeping infections from becoming epidemic. Belgium banned the export of all farm animals after an outbreak was reported on a farm in the western part of the country. The government also halted all animal transports for three days and closed a buffer zone around the suspected farm, 60 miles west of Brussels. Portugal is requiring passengers arriving from the United Kingdom to disinfect their shoes in a washbasin upon arrival at any airport or port. In Finland, authorities have instructed people visiting England to keep away from farms. If that's unavoidable, they should "wash very carefully in the sauna" on their return home. And Swedish farmers are being encouraged to avoid unnecessary visitors or at least make sure their clothing is disinfected until the situation is brought under control. Britain and Ireland took severe measures throughout the week to contain the livestock virus as agriculture officials confirmed six new cases, including the first in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Irish police sealed off a farm in County Louth, about 20 miles south of the border with Northern Ireland. Officials said they were concerned that sheep at the farm had been in contact with animals at the farm in Northern Ireland where foot-and-mouth disease was confirmed. With the virus already confirmed at two locations in Scotland, the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh quarantined Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, and closed its doors to visitors. Cloned animals are believed to be more susceptible to disease, but institute professor Ian Wilmut said the precautions for Dolly were not much different from those taken by livestock farmers. "She is valuable to us, but any farmer would be concerned to try to prevent the infection of animals on their farm," he said.

Amid fears that the disease would spread to continental Europe, thousands of British-exported animals have been destroyed in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherland. Portugal announced anyone arriving from the United Kingdom would have to dip their shoes in disinfectant. In French ports, authorities sprayed the tires of arriving trucks with disinfectant. Fearful even of uneaten sandwiches, the British government reminded people leaving the country that a blanket ban on exporting meat or milk applies to personal travellers as well. In New Zealand, a woman who returned home from Britain without telling customs staff she had visited a Scottish farm was facing possible criminal charges. The woman, Jenny Wood, is being questioned over an alleged false declaration on a quarantine questionnaire that asks, among other things, whether people entering New Zealand have visited a farm in the last 30 days. In the United States, government inspectors have stepped up their scrutiny of travellers arriving from Britain and even disinfecting the boots and shoes of some passengers in an effort to prevent foot-and-mouth disease from reaching the United States. The Agriculture Department issued an alert to its airport inspectors Feb. 21, after an outbreak started in Britain, and also banned the import of any British meat products. "We're working very closely with our European counterparts to understand the issue in Europe, and we're taking the appropriate steps to keep our country free of foot-and-mouth disease," USDA spokesman Kevin Herglotz said.

Britain began easing restrictions a bit in order to help farmers with their lambing ewes and cows about to give birth. Britain's chief veterinary officer Jim Scudamore announced that farmers will be allowed to move animals from field to field and up to about three miles in order to relieve animal suffering. "It's for the welfare of local livestock", a ministry of agriculture spokesman said, and the measure was welcomed by farmers. Scudamore stressed, however, that tight restrictions on livestock movements will be maintained and rigorously enforced. The disease is spread on wind, clothing and tires. The government also announced 13 new cases of the disease bringing the total to 119 since the outbreak, the first for more than 20 years, was confirmed just over two-weeks ago. Nearly 75,000 farm animals have been slaughtered and another 18,000 are waiting to be killed to stop the disease spreading. However the government said that the new cases were all linked and could be traced back to the original outbreak at a farm in Essex in southeast England. In 1999, no fewer than 60 countries reported outbreaks. The disease is particularly endemic in the Far East, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Maghreb and parts of central Africa, and the northern part of South America. Farmers complain about the flood of imported food and animal feed from countries with hygiene and welfare regulations less strict than Britain's.