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Watching, waiting, hoping

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THE newspaper headlines said it all: ‘Return of foot-and-mouth’ (Daily Telegraph); ‘Farmers fear repeat of the 2001 nightmare’ (Guardian); ‘Foot and mouth disease returns’ (Times). The confirmation of an fmd outbreak on a farm in Surrey on August 3, six years after the uk suffered an epidemic of the disease that saw more than six million animals slaughtered and cost the economy over £8 billion, came, as in 2001, out of the blue. In 2001, the fmd epidemic led to the general and local elections being postponed for the first time since the Second World War. This time, the Government was quick to show that it was taking the situation seriously from the start: the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs cut short their holidays to travel back to London for meetings of cobra, the Government committee that is activated during national or regional emergencies or crises.

2007 has already seen a notifiable disease outbreak in the uk, with h5n1 avian influenza being confirmed on a poultry farm in Suffolk in February. Livestock farmers, particularly those along the southern coast of England, have also been warned to be on alert for signs of bluetongue in their animals, after bluetongue reached northern parts of France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands last year, overwintered, and broke out again this spring. There were — and still are — fears that, with the right meteorological conditions, virus-carrying midges could be blown across the English Channel and initiate an outbreak here. Both avian influenza and bluetongue are very much ‘on the radar’ but, once again, fmd has demonstrated its capacity to surprise.

There was serious criticism of how the fmd epidemic was handled six years ago and, while it is still early days, there are already indications that some of the lessons learned from 2001 are being applied. The Lessons to be Learned Inquiry highlighted the need for forward planning, and defra has subsequently devoted considerable effort to developing contingency plans for dealing with incursions of exotic disease. These plans, which are reviewed and updated annually, and which are currently out for consultation for this year's update, have been put to the test on various occasions since 2001, dealing effectively with occurrences of Newcastle disease in pheasants in Surrey in July 2005, and avian influenza in April 2006 and earlier this year. However, this is the first time they have been used for an outbreak of fmd.

Unlike six years ago, a nationwide ban on the movements of cattle, sheep and pigs was imposed immediately following confirmation of the disease — and rightly so. The availability of veterinary manpower proved to be an issue in 2001, particularly during the early stages before the full extent of the epidemic became known. The kind of ‘Territorial Army’ of vets talked about at the time has not fully materialised, although the government does have in place a cadre of contingency local veterinary inspectors. These are non-government veterinary surgeons who are attached to a local Animal Health Divisional Office (ahdo) and who have received specific training in aspects of dealing with outbreaks of exotic disease. During an outbreak, they may be called upon to undertake roles that would otherwise be done by government veterinary staff, and also to provide veterinary advice about the local situation. In talks with the bva last weekend, Animal Health indicated that, should further veterinary manpower be needed, it will work with practices to obtain it, rather than employing individuals as temporary veterinary inspectors, as happened in 2001.

Access to information has improved since 2001, with regular updates and background information being available via the internet. What has not changed, however, is the primary means of control of the disease. Stamping out is still the main method of dealing with outbreaks of exotic disease, although there should be no repeat of the scenes of carcases being disposed of on pyres in the open countryside or by mass burial in huge pits. Carcases are instead being transported to incinerators for disposal. Emergency vaccination will be considered from five days after the confirmation of an outbreak if a veterinary risk assessment shows that it is needed to help control the disease, and, unlike 2001, there is a vaccination contingency plan already in place.

The questions began immediately following news of the disease's confirmation: where did the virus come from? How far has it spread? Are the farms in Surrey on which the virus has been identified the first to have been affected? While progress has already been made towards answering some of these, it is still early days and investigations into the source and spread of the virus will take some time to complete. A preliminary investigation by the Health and Safety Executive has indicated a ‘strong probability’ that a breach in biosecurity at a laboratory site in Pirbright, Surrey, occupied by both Institute for Animal Health and Merial Animal Health, resulted in release of the virus. If this proves to be the case, further questions will need to be asked.

Farming has been through difficult times in the past few years and recent events will not have made the situation any easier. With arable farmers in many parts of the country affected by the recent floods and livestock farmers now unable to move and trade their animals, it is another setback for an industry already under severe pressure. The situation will become clearer over the next few days, but it is to be hoped that this outbreak has been detected promptly and dealt with quickly and effectively.

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