Livestock Crisis: 1, 2

Humans Can Spread Virus

The risk of cross-continental transmission of foot-and-mouth disease is increased as the number of international travellers continues to rise. U.S. border crossings and ports of entry have seen an increase in people visiting or arriving in the country—480 million in 1999, according to the U.S. Customs Service.

Although humans can be affected by the virus, there are few documented cases of the virus sickening humans. But humans are carriers of the disease—on shoes, clothes, and vehicles. For this reason much of Britain has been shut down to tourism and mass-spectator events, and the United States has stepped up its vigilance at airports and other points of entry.

Mud clinging to the bottom of shoes can spread the disease from place to place. Because of this risk, travelers are asked to step in tubs of disinfectant at airport gates throughout the world.

An International Virus

The foot-and-mouth virus is present in some form in over 30 countries. It is endemic to some regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America because it is transmitted by wild animals.

Like the flu, there are several different strains of foot-and-mouth virus. Vaccines that fight one strain of the virus are powerless against another.

The current outbreak, known as the pan-Asian strain, began in northern India in the early 1990s. It later emerged in Nepal, Bhutan, and parts of China. Last year, it broke out in Japan and Korea, which had both been free of foot-and-mouth disease for nearly 70 years.

The virus paralyzing Britain is thought to have been in waste meat carried by a South African cargo ship that originated in India. The waste meat was fed to pigs in the county of Northumberland and the disease quickly spread across the country.

Tourism Devastated

The effects of the disease are not limited to the devastation of small rural farmers who specialize in livestock. Regions banning tourists in an effort to limit the spread of the virus have suffered financially. Some hoteliers in rural parts of England have gone bankrupt.

The English Tourism Council says tourism levels are currently 75 percent below normal for this time of year.

Yet not all the effects of foot-and-mouth are negative. In one of the world's hotspots, the disease is engendering cooperation. Israel has given Palestinian officials more than 200,000 doses of vaccine. Several cows and sheep in Palestinian areas of the West Bank have been tested for foot-and-mouth disease—but no cases in the area have been confirmed.

While the fortunes of rural livestock farmers suffer, exotic animal farmers are thriving. Sales of ostrich and kangaroo meat as well as shrimp are rising.

Frozen shrimp exports from Thailand rose over 60 percent in January. The Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia estimates that the European market for kangaroo meat may drive exports up 30 percent over the next year.

Simone Swink is a news editor for the television news show National Geographic Today. David Braun is the news editor for Watch National Geographic Today for regular coverage of the worldwide foot-and-mouth crisis. The show is broadcast on the U.S. cable television channel of the National Geographic Society each weekday at 7 p.m. ET/PT.