U.S. veterinarian recalls the horror of Britain's foot-and-mouth disease outbreak and the farmers' efforts to rebuild
Posted Oct. 15, 2002
Great Britain's recent bout with foot-and-mouth disease was brought home to most Americans by grizzly images of burning pyres of animal carcasses stacked like cordwood, or mass graves cut into the English countryside, filled with depopulated livestock.
Less evident than the economic upheaval from the culling of millions of sheep, cattle, and pigs, was the emotional toll suffered by farmers and their families.
A team of U.S. veterinarians who helped stem the tide of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom saw firsthand the severe psychologic stress caused by an animal disease outbreak, the likes of which have not been witnessed in the United States.
Dr. Lynda C. Kelley, a senior research scientist with the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Research Service, was one of several USDA employees honored recently for their efforts in the United Kingdom during this past year's FMD outbreak.
From March to April 2001, Dr. Kelley was part of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's Foot-and-Mouth Disease in the United Kingdom Team. During that time, she visited sheep and cattle farms in western England and Wales, testing for the virus. If the virus was detected, Dr. Kelley also helped value the livestock and feed for reimbursement.
"We would go onto farms and determine if there was a problem with FMD," Dr. Kelley explained. "If a lab could handle samples, we would submit them. But many times, we had to make decisions without lab support because the labs were overwhelmed. If the farm was positive, we would slaughter the animals."
Professional slaughter crews were summoned to the farms to cull the adult cattle and sheep. But the young animals, the calves and lambs, had to be euthanatized by inter-cardiac injections administered by the veterinarians themselves.
"You might do thousands of baby lambs a day yourself," Dr. Kelley recalled. "It was tough. It's not why you go to vet school. You go to vet school to make animals better.
"I was prepared for the economic devastation and logistical problems, but what I wasn't prepared for was the emotional aspect, not just of myself but of the farmers."
A farm declared FMD positive was placed under quarantine, with no person or animal allowed on or off the farm, except for the veterinarians and slaughter crews. Isolated from the community, the families could only watch as their livestock were culled and disposed of.
Before the British government declared a national emergency, which authorized the military to assist with logistics and carcass disposal, the veterinarians were responsible for disposal. Dr. Kelley worked in counties where the high water table prohibited burial, so the carcasses had to be burned instead, which was slow going.
Children who had bottle-raised calves were stuck on their farms when their calves, which the veterinarians had euthanatized, were decomposing out in the yard awaiting disposal, according to Dr. Kelley.
Neighbors were afraid to come around for fear of spreading the disease to their own flocks. "It was total isolation at a time when they really needed a lot of support," Dr. Kelley said, adding that veterinarians were the only link to the outside world for many families. They helped grieving families by performing such mundane tasks as bringing them groceries or shoeing a horse, now complicated by the quarantine.
"We ended up being counselors, too, to the people, and that was an area (where) I didn't realize we'd play a key role," Dr. Kelley said.
At the time of the outbreak, suicides and suicide attempts by emotionally distraught farmers were widely reported. Dr. Kelley recalled an 80-year-old farmer she met while depopulating his sheep farm in Worcester. His wife had died that year and he lost a farm in the 1960s to FMD. He thought he was going to lose the farm to the county once his sheep were killed. "I had cleaned up my boots and was getting ready to leave when I walked in on him as he was preparing to kill himself," she recalled.
Dr. Kelley talked the farmer through the night. Today he's doing well, she said, and Dr. Kelley remains in touch with him.
For three weeks this past July, Dr. Kelley, along with her family, returned to the United Kingdom to visit the British farmers and see how they are recovering as they restocked their farms. It was a wonderful experience, she said, adding that the farmers wanted the U.S. veterinarians to return and celebrate.
The government's reimbursement program isn't able, however, to cover all the costs of restocking every farm. "Cattle," she said, "right now are so expensive in the UK that a lot of farmers have not been able to restock their farms."
America could learn, Dr. Kelley believes, from how the British government responded to the FMD outbreak. Should the virus ever reach the United States, a national emergency should be declared immediately, she said. That way, every available resource will be used to contain the virus before it can spread.
Dr. Kelley admires how Britain issues "passports" to its cows, documenting where they originated and which farms they've been shipped to. This allows for efficient tracking and helped British officials with tracing the path of FMD contagion. She believes the United States would benefit from a similar system.
"We don't have any kind of tracking system like that in the United States, and I think that would be a good thing," she said. The British did not have a tracking system for sheep, however, which might explain why the foot-and-mouth virus spread so rapidly among the sheep farms.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which has, since the outbreak, been rolled into the Department of Defense, has maps of each farm. The maps contain details about the species and number of animals owned, as well as contact information. Although it would certainly raise concerns about privacy, Dr. Kelley thinks such a system would help this country in time of an animal disease outbreak. "In the event of an outbreak," she said, "it would give us a leg up and a place to start."
Given the increase of globalization and international travel, the paradigm that border patrol is the best way to prevent the introduction or foreign animal diseases must be rethought.
The only way to protect the nation's livestock, she said, is by working to eradicate animal diseases throughout the world.
"We need to be thinking about global animal health now," Dr. Kelley said. "It used to be that (line of thinking) meant that we might not be protecting our animal livestock, but now I think it is."