U.K. moves to contain spread of foot-and-mouth disease

Posted in Europe | 05-Aug-07 | Author: Jane Perlez| Source: International Herald Tribune

An aerial view shows officials from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs standing amongst slaughtered cows near Guildford, southern England, on Saturday.

LONDON: The authorities burned the bodies of 60 cattle found infected with foot-and-mouth disease on a farm in southern England on Saturday as they moved quickly to try to contain any spread of the disease, which devastated the British livestock industry in 2001.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown led a second emergency meeting at Downing Street on Saturday after canceling his vacation on the English seaside to deal with the crisis that raised fears of the need for the large-scale slaughter of animals. He promised immediate action to contain the disease.

The disease, highly contagious among animals, was discovered Thursday at a farm in Guildford in Surrey. The government announced the outbreak on Friday evening.

Acting more quickly than in 2001, when chaos gripped the farming industry, the government imposed an immediate nationwide ban on the movement of cattle, pigs and sheep. Farmers within six miles of the affected farm were asked to examine livestock for symptoms of the disease.

"It's very important that no one moves their animals until we've confirmed the origin" of the disease, said Britain's chief veterinary officer, Debby Reynolds.

Agricultural officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs donned white overalls and swarmed over the rural region in Surrey, as they imposed a tight cordon around the farm at Guildford and ordered inspections of livestock in the surrounding area.

The European Commission said Saturday that it would ban live animal exports from the United Kingdom, not counting Northern Ireland, along with meat and dairy products only from the immediate area of the outbreak. European Union health officials said they would meet Wednesday to evaluate the outbreak.

There was some confidence that the quicker measures would help stave off the devastating spread of the disease that happened in 2001, when more than 4 million animals were slaughtered and many farmers were put out of business. The loss to the British economy was estimated at $16 billion, mainly from the crippling of agricultural businesses.

Tourism fell sharply, too, in 2001. This time, government officials were at pains to say that the British countryside, now clogged with local and foreign vacationers, was open for unrestricted travel. In 2001, many trails, forests and tracts of national parkland were kept off limits after the outbreak.

Agricultural experts said there was hope that the disease could be contained because the farm in Guildford delivers its beef cattle straight to a slaughterhouse, limiting the number of places where the disease could spread, agricultural experts said.

Foot-and-mouth disease comes from a virus that grows inside the stomachs and intestines of livestock. It then travels into the bloodstream and causes painful blisters in the mouth and blistering in the hooves. Cows produce less milk when affected with the disease, and other animals become very weak.

Health experts tried to reassure the public that the disease would be unlikely to affect people. "It is not a threat for humans," Hugh Pennington, a professor of microbiology at Aberdeen University, told BBC television news. It was "highly contagious for cattle, sheep and pigs," he said.

Pennington said it was essential that quick action be taken to stamp out the virus at the local level in Surrey, and then to investigate whether the virus had spread elsewhere.

The quick ban on the movement of livestock by the government - part of a contingency plan made after the disaster of 2001 - would help, said the leader of the National Farmers' Union, Peter Kendall.

After the first discovery of foot-and-mouth disease in February 2001, it took 72 hours before a ban was placed on transporting livestock, Kendall said.

He appealed to farmers to cooperate immediately with the government's orders, a reflection of the slowness of some responses in 2001. Farm prices were still low after the 2001 crisis, but farmers had to be responsible, he said.

One of the main fears Saturday was a repeat of the giant pyres of burning animals wreathed in white smoke that dotted the English countryside in 2001.

The outbreak is the third crisis for Prime Minister Brown, who also led an emergency meeting of his top officials at Downing Street on Friday evening, since he took office a little more than a month ago. Botched terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow occurred in the first week of his tenure, and floods left large swaths of the British countryside submerged two weeks ago.

In 2001, his predecessor Tony Blair delayed a general election until the foot-and-mouth crisis ebbed.