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World Livestock Crisis Gathers Momentum; Is U.S. Next?

The British government authorized the slaughter of another 663,000 farm animals Monday, bringing to more than one million the number sentenced to death since foot-and-mouth disease erupted in that country last month.

burning carcasses

In only one month the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom has resulted in the slaughter of 400,000 farm animals, with another 600,000 earmarked for destruction in an effort to contain the virus.

Photograph by Murdo Macleod/Corbis Sygma

Foot-and-mouth disease started making headlines with photographs of smoldering livestock carcasses after several cases of the highly infectious virus were discovered in the United Kingdom in late February.

In spite of vigorous efforts by health authorities, the foot-and-mouth virus has spread from a five-mile (eight-kilometer) quarantine zone and erupted on more than 600 premises throughout the United Kingdom. It also crossed international borders to flare up in France, Ireland, and the Netherlands. The disease has also broken out in countries in Asia and South America.

Agricultural authorities are now concerned that foot-and-mouth disease will cross the oceans and surface in the United States, which last saw the virus in 1929.

"We are in the process of assessing the need for staffing at all national and international airports," said Kimberley Smith of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on Friday.

Heightened Alert

The USDA has put its human and canine inspectors at airports on heightened alert for the illegal importation of agricultural products. People entering the United States are being warned to report visits to foreign farms and make their footwear and personal belongings available for inspections. "We are looking at using extra temporary officers as well as additional staff from state agricultural departments," said Smith.

In spite of increased vigilance at ports of entry, veterinarians are nervous that the disease will enter the United States.

"When you get a disease as highly contagious as foot-and-mouth, it can spread quite rapidly," said Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians. The U.S. $40 billion pork industry straddles much of the Midwest and employs 600,000 people.

Burkgren said that if the United States pork industry has to deal with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease by quarantine, as the British are doing, it would cause widespread disruption of pig production. Yet isolation of infected areas would likely be the only effective way to deal with the situation.

Hog Industry Could Be Disrupted

"If we shut down the movement of pigs in this country for two to four weeks it would back up entire production systems," Burkgren said. "Because the most efficient and healthiest way to raise hogs is to have them born on one farm, raised on another, and 'finished' on a third, we would have pigs piling up everywhere. As the system is not designed to hold pigs, the industry could be seriously disrupted."

Burkgren said foot-and-mouth disease does not necessarily kill infected animals. However, by causing them to lose their appetites they lose weight and become susceptible to other diseases. But the worst effect of an outbreak would be disruption to production, he said.

The Association of Swine Veterinarians is leading an aggressive campaign to teach its members and pig farmers how to identify the disease as early as possible, he said. Because foot-and-mouth disease last broke out in the United States more than 70 years ago few people have any experience with it.

"Only a quick diagnosis and measures to isolate the disease and obliterate it will enable us to contain it if it does break out in this country," he said.

Burkgren said at least two states staged recent exercises to practice an emergency response to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. "However, everyone is holding their breath and hoping the situation will be brought under control in Europe."

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Foot-and-Mouth Facts

Foot-and-mouth disease is an acute infectious viral disease that causes fever and the development of blisters—chiefly in the mouth and on the feet in cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats. Wild and domestic cloven-hoofed animals, elephants, hedgehogs, and rats are also susceptible.

The disease is infectious and spreads rapidly if uncontrolled. Airborne spread of the virus can take place, spreading the disease considerable distances under favorable climatic conditions.

Heat, sunlight, and disinfectants will destroy the virus, whereas cold and darkness tend to keep it alive. Under favorable conditions it can survive for long periods of time.

Animals can pick up the virus either by direct or indirect contact with an infected animal or by contact with foodstuffs contaminated by an infected animal.

Indirect contact includes airborne contact with the virus or eating or coming into contact with some part of an infected carcass. The virus is present in great quantity in the fluid from the blisters of infected animals. It also can occur in the saliva, exhaled air, milk, and dung of the animal.

Cattle trucks, market places, and loading ramps where infected animals may have been present are considered sources of infection until disinfected. Roads may also become contaminated, and the virus may be picked up and carried on the wheels of passing vehicles.

Humans, or other animals such as dogs, cats, poultry, wild game, and vermin, in contact with an infected animal may also carry and spread infected material.

Source: U.K. Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food