USDA tries foot-and-mouth vaccine

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WASHINGTON – USDA scientists with the Agricultural Research Service and the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute in South Africa have undertaken a two-year cooperative study to produce new vaccines for foot-and-mouth disease.

Foot-and-mouth disease is a highly contagious disease of cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, pigs and sheep. Humans cannot get the disease but can act as mechanical carriers for the virus that causes the disease.

Foot-and-mouth disease usually doesn’t kill the animals, but does debilitate them, according to Peter Mason, leader of the foot- and-mouth research at Plum Island Animal Disease Center, Plum Island, N.Y.

An infected animal develops virus-filled blisters around its mouth, making eating difficult and the animal less productive. Infections near the hooves make it difficult for the animal to walk. In addition, teats of dairy animals are affected, hindering milk production.

Moving target. Constant mutation by the foot-and-mouth disease virus makes it hard for a vaccine to stay effective. The cooperating scientists are using genetic engineering to develop better vaccines that respond to changes in the virus.

A South African laboratory was chosen because of its international status and its work on a number of foot-and-mouth disease strains indigenous to Africa. Another reason for partnering with an international laboratory is that U.S. companies cannot produce vaccines from killed foot-and-mouth disease virus on the U.S. mainland. The Plum Island center is the only place in the United States where foot-and-mouth disease can be studied.

Important work. According to Mason, it is important to work with other countries to find vaccines for foot-and-mouth disease even though the disease has not appeared in the United States in more than 70 years. Limiting the presence of foot-and-mouth disease overseas helps protect the livestock of the United States, Mason notes.

Scientists on Plum Island have also worked with researchers from Brazil, China and Russia, but the partnership with South Africa has advanced the farthest.

The cooperative agreement with South Africa lasts through May 30, 2003.

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