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Foot-and-mouth disaster

Outbreaks of FMD around the world pose new risks to United States, officials report
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May 01, 2011

NATIONAL REPORT — Re-emergence of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) on American farms may be inevitable, reports a public health expert. Large-scale farming operations, unrestricted animal movement and a shortage of public health and large-animal veterinarians could be creating a perfect storm.


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Former California state veterinarian Dr. Richard Breitmeyer says if the virus returned to the United States, it would quickly and easily become a billion-dollar catastrophe.

"We believe the risk is very real. It's almost been amazing, to be honest, that we've never had an incursion," says Breitmeyer, who served as California's state veterinarian for the last 17 years and now oversees the California Animal Health and Food Safety (CAHFS) Laboratory System at the University of California-Davis.

Thirty-two countries, mainly throughout parts of Africa and Asia, have reported cases of foot-and-mouth disease over the last year, according to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). Turkey reported the most outbreaks—261 total—in 2010, but Korea's outbreaks have probably garnered the most attention. With vaccines prohibited at the time of the outbreak, OIE says 10 cases of FMD were confirmed in June 2010, and all susceptible swine—9,000 in all—were destroyed. Other recent outbreaks were reported in China on April 7. Eighty-seven cases were confirmed in cattle and four in swine. In response, 240 cattle, 419 swine and seven sheep and goats were destroyed since no vaccines were used. A March 10 outbreak in Israel ended a bit differently. Through the use of vaccines, no animals were destroyed even though FMD was confirmed in 22 cattle, according to OIE.

"If we get the disease in the United States, the reality is it's going to spread rapidly before it's contained," says Breitmeyer.

While vaccination is at the center of California's current response plan for an FMD outbreak, veterinarians need to consider that supplies are limited and vaccination would result in lost export markets for at least a year. Domestically, the marketplace would be hesitant to accept meat and dairy products from vaccinated animals, Breitmeyer adds.

California's State Veterinarian Dr. Annette Whiteford reports that traditional methods of containment and eradication would wreak havoc on the livestock infrastructure and emerge as a public-relations nightmare in terms of lost confidence in this country's food supply.

"We certainly consider foot-and-mouth disease to be a worst-case scenario in terms of disease," she says. "But you don't want the response to be as devastating as the disease. The traditional stamping-out method would probably be logistically impossible, and it would devastate our ability to recover. It's very difficult to justify to the public that type of action."

FMD has been eradicated in the United States since 1929, with the last two cases occurring in California. But FMD is still endemic in many parts of the world, a fact highlighted by recent outbreaks throughout Asia. South Korea has culled millions of agricultural animals in recent months, and outbreaks are now being reported in North Korea.

The fact that the outbreaks are on the other side of the world should be of little comfort to stakeholders in agricultural markets, Breitmeyer says.

"We're very concerned about what is going on in Korea," he adds. Judging from his visits to ports along the California coast, he says it's likely the virus has entered the United States at some point, but luckily hasn't caused an outbreak simply because it has not come into contact with a susceptible host or animal.

"We've done a great job at keeping the virus out, but I truly believe it's a matter of time before that virus is introduced, and we really need to be better prepared."

Recent studies estimate that for every hour a foot-and-mouth diagnosis is delayed, eradication costs climb $1 million to $3 million, Breitmeyer adds.