Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) is an economically devastating and highly contagious disease which affects all cloven-hooved animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.
The disease isn’t just limited to typical farm animals either. Deer, water buffalo, bison and even hedgehogs can all help spread FMD in the wild (1).
For the most part, humans cannot contract the disease and it is rarely fatal to the infected animal, but the repercussions are severe. FMD is extremely painful for the animal, and once recovered, milk and meat production is greatly reduced – effectively removing the reason for their existence in the first place.
The US has been FMD free since the last recorded case in 1929, but the rest of the world cannot boast such a record. And given that the U.S. government is considering building a bio and agro defense facility in Manhattan, Kansas, that status may change in the near future.
From February 2001 through to January 2002, the United Kingdom found itself in the midst of a foot and mouth crisis that had catastrophic consequences for the farming and tourism industries.
Containing an Outbreak
In order to try and control the outbreak, over 6 million cattle, sheep and pigs were slaughtered.
In addition to this mass killing, many rural events were cancelled, access to national parks and areas of natural beauty were restricted and strict sanitary regulations were placed on people and transport entering or leaving affected areas. It is estimated the total cost to the UK economy of the 2001 outbreak was nearly 14 billion dollars, an enormous amount of money by any reckoning.
There have been no cases of FMD in the United States since 1929, but the potential impact of any future U.S. outbreak is likely to be huge.
In order to prepare for such an eventuality, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) meet regularly and have published guidelines discussing the FMD problem. Even the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recognises foot and mouth disease as a potential disaster in waiting, and their National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility has been setup to deal with such a threat.
“The recent global H1N1 outbreak and other regional foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks have demonstrated the vulnerabilities present when there is a lack of available vaccines, countermeasures, and other rapid response capabilities to curb an outbreak. The food and agriculture industry is a significant contributor to U.S. economic prosperity; therefore, the loss of a significant food market would have dire economic and potentially human health consequences.” (2)
How FMD Could Enter the U.S.
The DHS have identified one of the possible ways FMD could enter the country, via increased imports of agricultural products.
The source of the 2001 UK outbreak was traced back to infected “pig swill” animal feed that was probably illegally imported to the UK and then fed to pigs (3).
Identifying how FMD could enter the country is one thing, but knowing what to do once an outbreak has been confirmed is the critical issue.
The various authorities and affected bodies in the United States have a definitive plan already drawn up and ready to use should the dreaded disease ever appear. Containment, Slaughter, Biosecurity and Movement Restrictions in the affected area, along with adhering to best practices and regulations with regard to manufacturing processes and transportation are all aspects of that plan.
The plan is very similar to that which the UK government put into practice in 2001, but a greater emphasis has been placed on recognising the symptoms of FMD and acting on them immediately.
“In the event of a suspected case of FMD, a team of animal health officials will quarantine the affected farm or facility until a definite diagnosis is made. Within hours of a diagnosis, this team will assess the extent of the outbreak and take quick action. The team also will set up movement controls covering an area of several miles around the affected farm or other affected locations. Movement of all animals, animal products, and even people may be restricted within the control area. Surveillance procedures will be established in the control area to ensure that the outward spread of the virus is contained. This quick response will dramatically improve the government’s ability to eradicate the disease and to help the industry return to normal operations.” (4)
Greater awareness and increased vigilance by the authorities and farmers alike should go a long way in helping to prevent a devastating outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
If identified quick enough, the financial cost of a US FMD outbreak is not going to be all that high. Getting it wrong, however, is an option to be avoided at all costs.
References & Image Credits: