24 August 2001

Welsh pressing for F&M vaccine use

By Robert Davies

VACCINATION continues to be debated in the effort to gain control over foot-and-mouth spread in Wales with producers still pressing DEFRA to allow flocks to be protected against infection.

One of the best known campaigners for the use of F&M vaccine is Ruth Watkins an ex-consultant virologist who farms in Carmarthenshire. Her 102 ewes at Pen Graig Goch should be grazing common land within the Brecon Beacons National Park, but she is not willing to risk them being caught up in the creeping cull of hefted flocks.

Mutual feelings

Neighbouring flockmasters feel the same way, so there are far fewer sheep than usual on common land rising above the village of Llangadog. Dr Watkins fears that there could be none, unless the current slaughter policy is abandoned.

Having studied the way blood testing is being carried out, she is convinced that the disturbance caused by teams gathering huge mobs of sheep into temporary pens could be spreading sheep with blood antibodies onto adjacent hefts.

Vaccine strategy

On Aug 13, she and other members of the National Foot-and-Mouth Group met top DEFRA vets to plead for a new approach, including the strategic use of vaccination in hefted flocks. She returned to Wales sure that the case would be carefully considered.

Until last year, when ill health forced early retirement, Dr Watkins was consultant clinical virologist at St Mary Hospital in Paddington. As she observed the spread of the F&M virus and attempts to control it, she became ever more certain that mass culling was wrong. Past experience working as a rural GP also made her aware of the impact on country people.

"I have no veterinary qualifications, but I have spent 18 years working on the diagnosis and control of viral diseases and a virus is a virus," says Dr Watkins.

"When I checked, I found there was an effective F&M vaccine for the Pan-Asia subtype virus involved, but there was a concerted campaign of misinformation to stop its use.

"I believe producers have never been told the true facts about vaccination against F&M. The governments own scientific advisers were in favour, but for some reason ring vaccination was still ruled out.

"As the number of slaughtered animals grew, politicians and farming union leaders could not bring themselves to admit they were wrong about the need to slaughter vaccinated animals and about the impact on meat sales and exports."

Dr Watkins says European consumers already eat imported twice-vaccinated animals. Antibodies in the blood of vaccinated animals protect them from the disease and disappear after about a year.

They cannot infect other animals and do not need to be slaughtered, she stresses.

She adds that there is also no scientific reason why the export of animals from non-vaccinated flocks and herds should not resume after the last confirmed case.

While she would favour using fire break vaccination around confirmed cases in dairy, beef and even pig herds, her main priority is to protect irreplaceable sheep bloodlines on common grazings that may be found carrying antibodies.

She has already drafted an outline strategy and is now consulting with other scientists and laboratories to write a detailed protocol, which she will present to government vets.

It will suggest that a smaller sample of ewes, perhaps 25% of the total, is gathered from each hefted area for blood testing. This would reduce the chances of disturbed sheep moving onto neighbouring hefts.

She says throat swabs should also be taken from sheep and operatives who are in close contact with them. These should be subjected to a polymerase chain reaction test to detect any active virus.

21st century science

"Antibody tests are not enough, they only show where a sheep has had contact with infection. We need to know whether any active virus is present in animals on the heft and where it is we must vaccinate. It should not be necessary to slaughter any animals.

"Testing costs would be higher and outside laboratories would have to do some of the work. But I believe that the true cost to the sheep industry, the environment, landscape and tourism would be less than the wholesale slaughter of irreplaceable hefted flocks.

"It is time to start using 21st century science to control this. Many vets and producers have told me that they now want strategic vaccination. I believe it will be used to control future outbreaks, so what is wrong with using it to end the current one?" &#42

&#8226 Ring vaccination suggested.

&#8226 Stock slaughter unnecessary.

&#8226 Vaccinated animals already eaten.

VACCINATION

Blood testing teams could be spreading foot-and-mouth, says Ruth Watkins – one of the campaigners for a vaccination policy in Wales.