Since the first cases of foot-and-mouth disease were discovered in the United Kingdom this February, more than 3 million sheep, cattle, goats, and pigs have been culled and as many are scheduled for slaughter, all part of the government's aggressive disease control program.
The good news is the infection rate is on the decline. The British government reports that an average of five new cases had been confirmed each day during the seven-day period ending May 27, compared with an average of 30 cases confirmed daily during the first week in April. As a result, travel restrictions have been eased on an estimated 16,000 farms.
Dwindling slaughter figures, although promising, are nevertheless grim. For instance, an average of 9,000 animals were culled each day during the week ending May 13, down dramatically from the average of 81,000 culled daily during the week of April 8.
Given the disease's ability to spread fast and far, British officials early on instituted a policy of "slaughter on suspicion," meaning an animal is marked for slaughter when a veterinarian cannot make a clear diagnosis of foot-and-mouth, but cannot rule out the disease.
Animals on infected farms are usually culled within 24 hours of the disease being diagnosed. Sheep, pigs, and goats on neighboring farms are then culled within 48 hours. Cattle will also be culled, unless high standards of biosecurity can allow them to be exempted.
And while Great Britain appears to be through the worst of the outbreak, British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned in early May of the potential for a new round of infections. "We will remain on watch. We will not slacken our guard against foot-and-mouth. The risk remains of cases arising, in areas which are already infected, or in new areas. Continuing vigilance is essential."
The British government has begun considering a recovery plan for the country's beleaguered livestock industry.
The disease appears to have been confined to the United Kingdom, although a few isolated outbreaks were reported in France, the Republic of Ireland, and the Netherlands. The United States continues to restrict imports for these countries, and despite a few false alarms, the disease has not been diagnosed in any US livestock.
Elsewhere in the world, Bolivia, Brazil, and Kuwait had, as of press time in late May, reported cases of foot-and-mouth disease.
For the latest on foot-and-mouth disease, visit www.avma.org.