20 April 2001
Minister: My foot-and-mouth battle

Writing exclusively for FARMERS WEEKLY, agriculture minister Nick Brown explains his view of the progress against foot-and-mouth

‘FOOT-and-mouth disease has been an enormous blow to the farming community. Nationwide it has had a profound, disturbing and painful impact which is recognised at the heart of government.

It represents the biggest peacetime challenge of recent times, requiring a major logistical and scientific response. It means a huge number of people tirelessly engaged in ending this scourge as quickly as possible.

I pay tribute to them and to all who have shown immense co-operation in pursuing a return to normality and prosperity for rural communities. Nevertheless, tragic and dreadful as it is, foot-and-mouth has not closed Britain. It has not endangered human health and life continues for most people.

That is why it is so important to tackle head-on the myths which have grown up creating victims in the wider community through misplaced fear. There is no food shortage. Our water is safe to drink. And the country is not covered in funeral pyres – 80% remains unaffected.

We share a responsibility neither to downplay the problem nor to paint a bleak, self-fulfilling picture that will extend difficulties longer than necessary. The greatest help we can give is to eliminate the disease and this remains our priority.

Co-operation is the only way forward. Cool heads, responsible action and moving forward together will ensure success is delivered more quickly.

The Facts
This disease is the most virulent in the animal world and notoriously hard to detect. foot-and-mouth spreads easily between pigs, cattle and sheep, although humans are not at risk.

The first signs of this outbreak were identified among pigs at an Essex abattoir on Feb 20, 2001. The origins were traced to a pig farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland, which is the most likely source.

From here it spread to seven farms in Tyne and Wear. One sent sheep to Hexham market from where it spread to other parts of the country. This initial, rapid spread was possible as the virus was in incubation. For up to three weeks, no one was aware of its existence.

Tracing movements of pigs has proved straightforward. But unrecorded sales of sheep made it impossible to track all movements.

Despite the heartrending consequences for both the animal and human populations in areas such as Cumbria, Devon, the north-east, and Shropshire, the true extent must be seen in perspective.

Foot-and-mouth has affected only a small proportion of the national herd less than 2.5% of the 55m UK cattle, sheep and pigs. More than 1600 vets are working with other professionals, including 2000 military personnel.

Twenty-two off-farm commercially licensed landfill sites are being used for the disposal of animals at risk of having been exposed to the disease. These sites are approved by Environment Agency scientists who have carried out exhaustive soil and geological studies.

Infected animals are buried on farms but only where there is no threat of groundwater pollution. Water experts, who monitor all sources, say existing methods of treatment for drinking water represent an effective failsafe for human health.

1967 v 2001
The current outbreak is internationally unprecedented. It is also different to that of 1967, making direct comparisons impossible.

Then, the outbreak was mainly among pigs and cattle. This outbreak has spread to sheep in which it is harder to detect. 13,000 animals a week were slaughtered then compared with 48,000 a day this time.

The critical difference has been the speed and geographical scale of the spread of infection, primarily due to the ease with which animals were mixed and moved along improved road networks.

In 1967 the army was deployed more quickly but with teething troubles. The peak reached 90 cases a day. This outbreak has not hit those heights and enabled ministers to plan more carefully the most effective use of troops.

Strategy
Our policy has been driven by the best scientific advice. Veterinary and other experts in the spread and control of disease agree we have the right strategy.

We seek to:

  • Ensure stringent disinfections and precautionary measures to contain the disease within infected areas;
  • Restrict movement by identifying areas carrying heightened risk on neighbouring farms in 3km and 10km zones to guard against spreading the disease through infected animals or contaminated vehicles, equipment and people;
  • Cull all animals on infected farms within 24 hours of the disease being notified to prevent the release of the virus into the air;
  • Cull all animals in neighbouring farms within 48 hours of the first report to remove the risk of spreading the disease. We cannot wait for symptoms to show because by then the animals could have been breathing out the virus for several days.
  • Continue the pre-emptive cull of sheep in Cumbria, along the southern end of Penrith and the Solway Firth. That is a firebreak between the heavily affected places in the north and the Lake District where cases have been more limited.
  • Clear the backlog as quickly and as safely as possible. While there is little risk of the disease spreading from slaughtered animals they must be disposed of promptly through a combination of rendering, burning and burial.
Vaccination has always been an option, but only ever to complement, not replace, the cull policy which will continue unabated. Full compensation is being paid for slaughtered stock and more than 0.5bn pounds has been committed.

Businesses are also being encouraged to contact their banks and the revenue departments if they cannot meet their financial obligations. Local Business Links can offer more general advice. The revenue has told all its offices that they are free to exercise discretion in waiving 8.5% interest due on tax debts.

Help is available through MAFF Rural Stress Action Plan Partners. They offer practical and emotional support for anyone in need. Further information can also be obtained on 024 7641 2916 or online at www.farminghelp.org.uk

Action is under way to ensure the protection of rare breeds. Genetic material has been taken and an emergency genebank established at York University.

Progress
The governments chief scientific adviser, Prof David King, believes that the epidemic has flattened out and there are hopeful signs that it is in decline. The average daily number of cases in early April was 32 against 43 in late March.

Vital to success is dealing with animals on neighbouring farms. Without that we would be seeing more cases every day. This work needs to go on because infection may not show in symptoms for up to a fortnight, by which time they could have passed the disease elsewhere.

At least 80% of animals are being culled within the 48-hour target for those on neighbouring farms and we strive to do better.

The Future
We are working steadily toward eradication. As we become satisfied that this is happening there will be scope for releasing areas from restrictions.

That will involve assessing when we can safely reduce the size of areas extending beyond a 10km radius. Where there have been no new cases for 30 days, and after all necessary veterinary inspection and blood testing, we will look to lift restrictions from infected areas.

Bans on animal movements are also being eased in certain cases with details available from the foot-and-mouth hotline 0845 0504141 or via our web-site www.maff.gov.uk

From next week farmers in restricted areas will be able to sell under licence stock to abattoirs in those same areas. We are slowly but surely winning the battle against what is a pernicious and indiscriminate foe. However, there is still far to go. We must all remain vigilant and guard against complacency.’

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