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Wag the Sheep

By Christopher Kemp · May 10th, 2001 · Science & Technology

"My understanding is that the man was moving a decomposing carcass of a cow and that carcass exploded and the fluid went into his mouth. I only say this to illustrate how highly unusual the circumstances were regarding their potential contraction."

-Spokesman for English Prime Minister, Tony Blair, commenting April 25, 2001 on the first possible contraction of foot-and-mouth disease by a human being in 34 years

So either way, this poor guy was going to lose: If he was unlucky, he contracted foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), and could look forward to a fever, headaches, and blisters on the mouth and hands; if he was lucky, he had just swallowed juice from a rotten cow exploding.

By April 27, the world learned Paul Stamper was lucky; he had survived a spontaneous cow explosion, tested negative for the disease and now had one heck of a story to tell his kids. Of a total of 15 suspected human cases so far, all have tested negative for the disease; but after more than two months spent trying to contain the disease as it quickly spread across the United Kingdom, the testing of humans suspected to have contracted FMD is neither surprising nor welcome.

According to Great Britain's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), the chances of a human contracting the disease are very small. On the disease crossing the species barrier to humans, the MAFF's Web site (www.maff.gov.uk) states: "Advice from the Health Department is that it is very rare. There has only been one case of FMD in a human being in Great Britain in 1966."

Symptoms include a tendency to lie down, a markedly reduced milk yield, sore teats, fever and lameness. Any readers exhibiting these symptoms are advised to see a doctor immediately, and probably a psychologist and maybe a veterinarian, too, because they usually are seen in livestock. Humans suffering from FMD develop flu-like symptoms, headaches and ulcerations in the mouth and on the hands. In animals, symptoms also include spontaneous abortions and ulcerations on mouths and feet. The fast-growing ulcerations are prone to secondary bacterial infection, photos of which are rendered in vivid and stomach-churning Technicolor on Web sites like that of the MAFF and information sites for farmers, such as The Pig Site (www.thepigsite.com).

Yes, there's really a site all about pigs. There, you can learn all about swinepox, thin sow syndrome and snout deviation. Questions are answered, such as: "What causes hog manure to smell so much?" and "Profit and pigs -- an oxymoron?" It's quite a resource. Pigs.

On Feb. 20, veterinarian Craig Kirby was in Heddon-on-the-Wall, in Northumberland, England, when he noticed and photographed blisters on the feet and snout of a pig he was treating. Within three hours, the blisters had doubled in size, the MAFF was quickly notified, and the outbreak had officially begun. Since then, more than 1,500 cases have been reported throughout the United Kingdom, with other cases reported in Ireland, France and Holland. In a 24-hour period, between May 2 and May 3, nine new cases were reported in livestock.

While modern technology couldn't prevent the outbreak, it did allow the MAFF to trace the path of infection from Heddon-on-the-Wall to seven other farms in the area. Before Kirby even noticed the infected pig in Heddon-on-the-Wall, sheep from one of these other farms were sent to a livestock market in nearby Hexham, which were then sent to markets in Longtown and Cumbria. From Longtown, sheep were transported to Scotland and Wales; Devon in the south of England; Dearham, Cheshire and Cumbria in the north; and Hereford, Northampton and Ross-on-Wye in the Midlands. With livestock crisscrossing the country at such speed, the infection spread quickly and the outbreak was complete.

FMD is viral, highly contagious and carried on the wind. It infects cows, sheep, goats, pigs, rats, elephants, hedgehogs and coypu (a South American rodent); some experts believe birds played a role in spreading the disease so quickly.

To complicate matters, there are seven different strains of virus responsible for FMD, namely: O, A, C, SAT 1, SAT 2, SAT 3 and Asia 1. Each strain has many subtypes, and the average incubation period is three to eight days, but can be shorter, or longer. Infection with, and recovery from, one strain offers no protection against other strains. Although they are unconnected, foot-and-mouth disease is often confused with hand-foot-and-mouth disease. A doctor friend of mine thought it was called foot-and-mouth disease because cows, pigs and sheep don't actually have hands. He has a point. They don't.

In the United Kingdom, farmers have been ordered to cull whole herds to prevent further spread of the disease. The requirements state that every animal on an infected premises should be slaughtered within 24 hours of the first report of the disease by the owner.

Due to the scant news coverage of the outbreak, most Americans have never considered Britain's FMD problem potentially their problem, too. The truth, though, is that there is no end in sight to the ongoing FMD epidemic, and the longer Britain's epidemic continues, the more likely the US is to suffer its own outbreak. The effects would be disastrous. In the latest breakdown of Britain's slaughter statistics, released May 6, more than 2.6 million animals have been slaughtered or identified for slaughter; 89,000 of those animals still await slaughter; 44,000 carcasses still require disposal; and an average 50,000 animals are slaughtered and disposed of each day. Animals at more than 7,000 farms have been affected.

While this is raging on the other side of the world, US experts have stated eagerly that the chance of an outbreak of FMD here is negligible; but many countries besides Great Britain suffer regular outbreaks of FMD, including countries throughout South America, Africa and Asia.

Meanwhile, May 3 saw British Premier Tony Blair announce confidently the end of the outbreak was near. But with Blair preparing to set the date of the national general election, in which he is hoping to secure his re-election, such announcements sound more like a case of the tail wagging the sheep.

contact Chris Kemp: letters@citybeat.com


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