UK foot-and-mouth outbreak in decline

Published on December 15, 2001
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The United Kingdom continues to recover from its worst outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease on record. A reported 3.9 million animals, most of them healthy, have been destroyed in the UK since the highly infectious disease was diagnosed on a farm in northeast England last February.

The outbreak reached farms in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, as well as parts of continental Europe. But the British government's implementation of roadside decontamination areas, stringent controls on animal movement, and a controversial slaughter policy eventually led to the containment of the disease and a corresponding drop in infections. No new cases had been reported since late September.

With the foot-and-mouth outbreak in decline, the government in November relaxed movement restrictions for most of the country's farms.

Not long after infections started cropping up, European countries destroyed thousands of foot-and-mouth disease-susceptible animals from the UK and closed their doors to additional imports.

Here in the United States, the Department of Agriculture went on heightened alert. Public awareness was raised and safeguards were implemented at airports and other ports to prevent the disease from reaping untold economic damage on U.S. livestock.

Tensions are beginning to ease elsewhere. The European Commission has reinstated conditional exportation of susceptible animals to the UK, a move that will help farmers replenish depleted livestock. The U.S. import ban remains in place, but restrictions have softened on French and Irish ruminants and swine products. There are, however, continued restrictions because of other diseases, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and in the case of France, classical swine fever.

The toll on Britain's economy has been immense. In addition to lost revenue because of a drop in tourism, compensation to farmers of slaughtered animals has cost more than $1 billion.

Criticism of the government's handling of the outbreak has been sharp. Early on, officials chose not to authorize limited livestock vaccination. And the strategy of slaughtering healthy animals near infected farms within 24 hours of contagion confirmation was condemned by farmers and animal rights activists alike. However, studies by veterinary epidemiologists conclude the government did not move quick enough in its culling policy.

The strain of foot-and-mouth that has plagued Britain first appeared in India in 1990. It is not known how the disease reached the island nation. One prevailing opinion is a consignment of illegally imported beef contaminated with the disease was not properly cooked before being fed to swine.