Britain staggers with foot-and-mouth disease

WASHINGTON – There hasn’t been an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United States since 1929. Still the prospect of the virus somehow slipping through has the USDA on quick alert.

A widespread outbreak in Britain that has put much of that country under quarantine has brought an immediate ban on animal products being imported into the United States from Britain.

Although much of the world has never been considered foot-and-mouth disease free, the British outbreak is the first in that country since an occurrence in 1967 resulted in the slaughter of half a million animals.

The first cases of the current outbreak were spotted at a slaughter house in Essex in southeast England Feb. 20, and by week’s end had emerged at locations across the country.

On the continent.

Over the following weekend as many as 2,000 animals were destroyed in England, and thousands of animals already imported from England to Germany and the Netherlands were also being slaughtered.

Because foot-and-mouth virus is easily transported, British citizens were requested not to travel into the countryside, and movement of all animals and meat was restricted until the outbreak has been brought under control.

A 1995 USDA study of foot-and-mouth cited an almost inexhaustible list of known ways the virus had been spread, including being carried in hides, in semen, and in many food products. Improperly prepared vaccine has caused several major outbreaks. The virus has even been known to remain alive and vital in cured ham.

Outbreak in Greece.

After having been entirely absent from Europe since 1996, the disease reappeared in 2000 in Greece. The source of that outbreak was believed to have been Turkey.

Worldwide in 2000 there were outbreaks in Saudi Arabia, East Asia, Russia, Africa, and South America. The Union of South Africa had its first cases since 1957 emerge in pigs that had ingested swill thrown from visiting ships.

The disease causes blistering on the hoofs and lips of pigs, cattle, sheep, goats and other animals. It can also attack wild cloven-hooved animals.

It does not affect humans, but can be carried by humans in their clothes, in their lungs, or in products that carried from country to country. It can also be spread through the air.

The USDA is particularly sensitive to the possibility of the virus being brought into the United States, since most producers and health workers are inexperienced with the virus. An unchecked outbreak could cost billions of dollars.

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