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Foot & Mouth DISEASE: How It Could Happen Here.

Kathy H. struggled to shove her carry-on bag into the overhead compartment. She had just spent two weeks visiting distant relatives in England's farm country, and stashed deep inside the bag was a pork sausage made there on her cousin's farm. Kathy owned a dude ranch in northern Colorado, and was returning from her first visit to Europe. She had no way of knowing that in a little more than seven hours, her innocent, apparently small act of smuggling would lead to the most devastating outbreak of a contagious disease in American livestock since an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 1929. Her actions would lead to the mass slaughter of millions of animals and the economic demise of thousands of farmers and ranchers.

Although Kathy's story is strictly hypothetical, it is completely conceivable. Consider the reality:


Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is a highly contagious virus that affects all cloven-hoofed livestock, including cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. It is the most contagious livestock disease, and, according to one U.S. Department of Agriculture official, "moves like wildfire." More exotic livestock, such as llamas, elk, deer, bison, bears, armadillos, hedgehogs and elephants, are also susceptible. The disease can easily be transmitted in the air, by direct contact or by ingestion. Air currents and wind can transmit virus particles from heavily infected animals up to 40 miles away.

The virus can be carried in uncooked, underprocessed meat, fat, and milk or food items produced from them (such as sausage, for instance). Virus particles can be transmitted on contaminated inanimate objects like soil, clothing and shoes, surviving up to 46 days at room temperature.

As she headed through customs, Kathy noticed signs instructing arriving passengers who had been to England to have their shoes disinfected in foot baths. The customs officer specifically asked her if she had visited any farms or had any food products in her possession. She felt herself flushing as she fibbed, hoping her sausage could make it home as a gift for a friend.

The customs official gave her a quick glance, lingering momentarily on Kathy's reddened face. She looked innocent enough, and he nodded her through his portal without a baggage search. She stepped into the foot bath, then wheeled her luggage under the towering tent poles that supported Denver International's massive white roof, heading toward her pickup parked in the outer lot.


The United Kingdom has been Ground Zero for the recent foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Europe. On February 19, 2001, a routine veterinary inspection near Essex revealed 27 pigs with signs highly suspicious of foot-and-mouth. A day later, the U.K.'s Ministry of Agriculture confirmed the outbreak.

By May 14, more than 1,600 cases of foot-and-mouth disease had been confirmed. Nearly 3 million cattle, sheep, pigs and goats were slaughtered and incinerated in ghastly funeral pyres. The acrid smoke hovering over the rolling hills of England painted a far different picture from the idyllic herds of creatures great and small that James Herriot wrote about.

Further confirmed cases were reported in The Netherlands, France and several countries in South America and the Middle East. The United States has been free of foot-and-mouth. It has been more than 70 years since the last outbreak, when 277 head of cattle, 3,000 pigs and 23 goats were killed.

As Kathy headed back to her ranch, she planned how she would surprise her Emily and friends with her gifts. The sausage from her cousin's farm would go to her good friend and neighbor Clarence, who operated a small, 150-head dairy nearby.


Early signs of foot-and-mouth in cattle may include:

* mental dullness;

* poor appetite;

* elevated temperature;

* isolation from the rest of the herd.

Effected dairy cattle show a considerable drop in milk production. As the disease progresses, there may by profuse slobbering as blisters form on the tongue, gums, lips or palate. Lameness occurs as blisters, or vesicles, form between the digits (hooves) and along the coronary band at the top of the hoof. Vesicles may form on the teats and udder as well.

In pigs, the main symptom is lameness. Pigs may lie down and will be reluctant to get up as the blisters form along the coronary band. They may squeal loudly when forced to move. Blisters form on the snout and quickly rupture, developing scabs.

Symptoms are more subtle in sheep and goats, but a sudden lameness may be noted, with blisters forming on the coronary band or in the mouth. Sheep may be reluctant to stand and will appear dull and sick.

Unable to contain her delight, Kathy delivered the sausage to the Clarence's dairy on her way home. He appreciatively accepted it, passing it back and forth between his hands as he enjoyed its pungent garlicky aroma. He then headed out to do the evening milking.


There is no treatment for foot-and-mouth. Animals may recover, but will remain debilitated and will carry the virus for the rest of their lives. Humans, except in a few rare cases, are not susceptible, nor are horses and other noncloven hooved animals. Vaccination ultimately will be the preferred action in the face of an outbreak, but until now no effective test has been available to let veterinarians differentiate between vaccinated, disease-free animals and those that carry the disease. Thus, when one animal showed symptoms, the entire herd had to be destroyed. A new blood test is being developed that will distinguish between animals that have been vaccinated and those that are actually carrying the virus, and should be available by the time this issue of MOTHER is published, thus ending much of the carnage associated with an foot-and-mouth epidemic.

The Colorado state veterinarian had been dreading the call, but expecting it. A veterinarian from northern Colorado had called to report signs of foot-and-mouth disease in a dairy herd in his county. If there were a case of foot-and-mouth in the United States, the state veterinarian knew, all U. S. exports of red meat to disease-free countries would cease, involving as many as 600 million live animals and a loss of $4.4 billion a year.

As of this writing, there are no actual cases of foot-and-mouth disease in the United States. But the point of this cautionary tale is that something as innocent as a smuggled sausage could wreak havoc in the American livestock industry. The epidemic would be even more devastating in the United States than in Europe, due to the close confinement and living conditions of livestock on factory farms.

Tips on Spotting Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Farm animals affected include cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. Horses are not susceptible (they are prone to other extremely contagious viruses that cause blistering on the mouth, most notably vesicular stomatitis.)

* Huge blisters in the mouth or on the feet resulting in slobbering, lip-smacking or lameness. Blisters may not be observed until they rupture.

The incubation period (time from exposure to symptoms) is anywhere from 48 hours to two weeks. Other signs may include:

* Fever, especially in young animals;

* Sticky, foamy saliva;

* Loss of appetite;

* Low conception rates and abortions;

* Low milk production in dairy cattle.

If a case is suspected, a government veterinarian must ultimately make a diagnosis, and in the meantime the farm must be quarantined.

Mad cow disease: Separating Fact from Fiction

Mad Cow Disease, or bovine spongioform encephalitis (BSE), and foot-and-mouth disease are totally unrelated. BSE is a very slow developing infection of the brain caused by protein particles known as prions, which are similar to, but distinct from, viruses. The slow replication of the prions in the brain gradually replaces normal brain tissue with vacuoles, or holes, that are identifiable in effected tissue examined under a microscope.

There have been no cases of BSE diagnosed in the United States.

Cattle in England were originally infected after eating underprocessed feed contaminated with sheep byproducts from sheep infected with scrapie, a similar "brain-eroding" disorder.

Effected cows will act demented, often aggressive, though sometimes very subdued. Diagnosis can be made only by slaughtering the BSE suspect and inspecting tissue samples of the brain under a microscope, looking for the telltale vacuoles.

Because prions replicate so slowly, the disease is not found in cattle less than 30 months old. Since most cattle are slaughtered before the age of 30 months, the risk of humans eating infected meat is small. In addition, the disease-causing agent is primarily found only in the brain, spinal cord and retina.

Despite this, the death of 87 people since 1996 has been linked to the consumption of BSE-tainted beef. In humans the disease is known as Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (variant), or CJD(v), a previously rare neurological disease that is caused by similar, spongelike transformation of brain tissue.

Even more disturbing, another form of prion disease, known as chronic wasting disease of deer and elk, has appeared In the western portion of the United States, centered in the Colorado-Wyoming area. Hunters who eat meat from infected animals could develop CJD(v) disease. The disease has also infected elk ranches in the United States and Canada. Effected animals will often appear weak; sometimes their heads will tremor or bob. This disease may have been introduced in the 1980s through Colorado Division of Wildlife feeding stations that offered feed contaminated with scrapie-infected sheep byproducts.
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Author:Geller, Jon
Publication:Mother Earth News
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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