Foot and Mouth Disease

What is Foot and Mouth Disease?

Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) is an extremely contagious viral condition, affecting cloven-hoofed animals, such as sheep, cattle, pigs, goats and deer.

Its principal symptom is the development of blisters containing watery fluid in the mouth, in the skin of the teats, in the skin between the hoofs of the feet and in the skin just above the hoofs, which later form raw patches. It is rarely fatal for infected animals, apart from the newly born, and humans are extremely resistant to it.

The disease is endemic in areas of Asia, Africa and South America, but the EU has remained relatively free of the disease since 2001, when a major outbreak hit the UK, and to a lesser extent, France, the Netherlands and Ireland.

Given its highly contagious nature, everyone working with farm animals is under a legal obligation to report any suspected cases of FMD to a veterinary surgeon. As a corollary of this obligation, they are expected to be sufficiently aware of the symptoms of the disease.

Although FMD poses a considerable threat to animal welfare, its main political significance is economic. Many buyers in most countries will not accept meat products that are or may have come from areas that are not definitively FMD-free. The productivity of animals affected is also lessened. In this way, FMD outbreaks can cause massive damage to a country's livestock farming and food production industries.

Background

FMD was first identified in the UK in 1839. Its low impact on animal mortality and relatively mild symptoms meant that it was largely ignored, until the Great Cattle Plague of 1864-1866 forced the Government to take animal health more seriously. The plague was eradicated by the end of the decade by a combination of slaughter, livestock movement controls and import restriction, whereupon the Government applied the same measures to FMD and other animal diseases, so that FMD was destroyed in the UK by the 1880s.

From its reappearance in 1910, the UK was regularly beset by outbreaks of FMD, with particularly devastating epidemics occurring in 1924, 1952 and 1967-1968.

FMD vaccine research first began in the 1930s, and while it was a priority for the Government during the Second World War, slaughter remained the favoured weapon of the Ministry of Agriculture. During the 1967-1968 outbreak, the Government oversaw the slaughter of 400,000 animals. In those years and in 1952, the rejection of vaccination, which was being used in many other affected countries, was widely criticised.

FMD was then absent from the UK until 2001. A routine inspection of Cheale Meats abattoir in Brentwood, Essex, found FMD in 27 pigs on February 19. When the tests were confirmed, MAFF imposed an exclusion zone around the abattoir and the source farms the next day, and banned live animal exports the day after that. The same day, the EU banned the import of British animals and animal products.

At this time, MAFF's plans - based on the findings of the 1968 Northumberland Report - modelled handling an FMD outbreak on the basis of ten affected farms. It has since been accepted that by the time the first cases were discovered, FMD was on 57 farms across the country. The next cases were discovered at Heddon on the Wall, Tyne and Wear on February 23 - when the Government banned the movement of all animals from affected areas - and at Highampton in Devon on February 24 - when the first slaughter began. On March 2, MAFF called in the Army to help carry out the now-backlogged cull.

The disease spread across the country with alarming speed, with new cases per day peaking at around 50 in mid March. By mid April, there were over 1,500 confirmed cases, at which point the rate of spread began to slow. The general election, which had been provisionally scheduled for May was postponed, and eventually took place in June, once the rate of new cases appeared to be under control. The last recorded case occurred on September 30, in Little Asby, Cumbria. 2,030 cases had been reported overall.

During the summer of 2007, foot and mouth disease once again appeared in the country. DEFRA confirmed a farm in Surrey had tested positive for FMD on August 3.

The nearby Pirbright laboratory site - which houses separate units of the government-run Institute for Animal Health, and Merial Animal Health - was identified as a possible source of infection.

A HSE report confirmed this suspicion and blamed poorly maintained drains at the Pirbright site for transmitting the virus to neighbouring farms. The report also claimed biosecurity measures had not been properly adhered to, and identified "release by human movement" as probable cause for the outbreak.

On September 8, the surveillance zone was removed.

On September 12, however, a new farm tested positive 30 miles away near Egham in Surrey, causing further turmoil for the farming industry and leading many to question whether the previous restrictions had been lifted too soon.

There were eight confirmed cases of FMD in the south-east of England in August and September 2007. Following further extensive surveillance work, movement restrictions were finally lifted from 31st December 2007.

In 2008 the National Farmers Union backed legal cases brought by 14 farmers seeking redress for the damage caused to their businesses by the outbreak. The NFU was also reported to be considering legal action against the government in an attempt to secure compensation for the damaged farming industry.

Controversies

The 2001 FMD outbreak had a devastating effect on farming, food production and tourism, and wide side-effects on other parts of the economy. Millions of animals were killed, creating enormous problems of disposal and compensation. Throughout the crisis, the conduct and policies of MAFF were heavily criticised.

There was widespread criticism of the Government's refusal to consider a policy of vaccination, in preference for slaughter. Supporters of vaccination argued that this policy had been successfully used in Europe, to a point where further vaccination had become unnecessary. Many calls were made either for universal vaccination or for the vaccination of animals surrounding outbreaks, to act as a "firebreak". From the animal welfare perspective, many objected to the preventative slaughter of uninfected animals - a feeling amplified by the horrors of the disposal problem.

The Government and its scientists rejected vaccination, however, warning that vaccinated animals could still act as vectors for the disease. On the economic front, it was also argued that the UK's capacity to export would be severely damaged by failing to stamp out FMD as quickly as possible through slaughter.

Other biosecurity measures taken were highly unpopular. "Standstills" imposed on farms and surrounding areas (including footpaths) and the perception of infection had a devastating effect on the rural economy. The disposal of dead animals became a serious problem, with massive burial pits and pyres a common sight across the country, raising environmental concerns about air and water pollution.

During the crisis, MAFF was held largely to blame for the spread of the epidemic. Agriculture Minister Nick Brown was held particularly responsible for the poor co-ordination and mismanagement of the early days of the outbreak, although by the time he was sacked and MAFF reconstituted (after the June general election), it was widely felt that Mr Brown was on top of matters. Nonetheless, the Anderson report later acknowledged that Mr Brown had lost the trust of farmers and the public by giving the impression that FMD was under control too early.

Other criticisms levelled at MAFF included bringing the Army in too late; giving false information about the state of affairs; adopting a confrontational attitude towards the farming and rural community; failing to recognise the impact of restrictions on the wider rural economy; and failing to pay adequate and speedy compensation. The Anderson report also found that MAFF's contingency plans were poorly developed, and that few of the Northumberland recommendations from 1968 had been put into practice.

The Government faced further criticism later in 2001, when it refused to appoint a public inquiry into the outbreak. Instead it appointed three inquiries into the policy aspects (headed by Professor Iain Anderson, a former adviser to the Prime Minister), the scientific aspects (conducted by the Royal Society) and the wider implications for farming, food and the rural economy (chaired by Sir Don Curry). Although critical of how the outbreak was handled in many respects, all the reports fell short of blaming the Government, and stressed the unprecedented scale and speed of the spread of the epidemic. The Anderson and Royal Society reports both, however, recommended that vaccination should be available in the event of future outbreaks.

Since that time, and as part of the overall strategy for sustainable farming and food launched in 2002, DEFRA has worked to develop an all-inclusive and comprehensive long-term Animal Health and Welfare strategy. The stated aim of the strategy is to manage the impact of animal diseases - both in terms of its impact on animal welfare and the environment generally and on the economic and social well-being of rural people.

In November 2010 a major national exercise organised by Animal Health - an executive agency of Defra - and involving the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly Government and others, was carried out to test the Government's ability to deal with a possible future significant outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease. Exercise 'Silver Birch' simulated an outbreak of FMD on a national scale, its aim being to identify how plans and procedures for managing the disease could be improved. 

A year later in November 2011, the 'Foot and Mouth Disease Control Strategy for Great Britain' was published detailing how a suspect case and outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease would be managed in Great Britain, within the framework of the EU and national law.

Defra, the Scottish government and the Welsh government would be responsible for managing outbreaks in their respective areas. Northern Ireland, which is recognised as a separate epidemiological unit, would operate separate but similar controls in accordance with EU and national law.
 

Statistics

There are 7 main types of virus: O, A, C, SAT.1, SAT.2, SAT.3 and Asia 1. Within each type there are many sub-types, e.g. O1 and A22.
The average incubation period is 3-8 days but it can be shorter or may extend to 14 days or longer.
The virus responsible for the 2001 outbreak in the UK was the highly virulent pan-Asiatic O type.
When animals recover from infection by one type of virus they have little or no protection against attacks by any one of the others.

Source: Defra - 'About foot and mouth disease' - 2011

Quotes

"The Government’s primary objective in tackling any outbreak of FMD will be to eradicate the disease as quickly as possible and to regain the UK’s disease-free status. In doing so, the Government will act swiftly and decisively, in partnership with its operational partners and industry stakeholders:
to minimise overall cost of the outbreak and the burden on the taxpayer and public as well as the economic burden of the outbreak on the food, farming and tourism industries and the wider economy;
to protect the health and safety of the public and those directly involved in controlling the outbreak.

In delivering this objective, the disease control measures set out in this strategy will seek to:
minimise the number of animals that need to be culled either for disease control purposes or to safeguard animal welfare;
minimise adverse impacts on animal welfare, the rural and wider economy, the public, rural communities and the environment.

Defra: Foot and Mouth Disease Control Strategy for Great Britain - November 2011
 

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