The 'hidden' epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease
The major outbreak of
foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in the United Kingdom has put
the spotlight on Europe. But many parts of the developing
world have to deal with the virus every day. This interview
with Dr. Peter Roeder, FAO animal health officer recently
returned from South Asia, highlights some of the issues they
How widespread is foot-and-mouth disease in the
health officer Peter Roeder
It is difficult to know just how much FMD there is at
any one time. Faced with the impossibility of realistic
control within the resources available, many countries
choose not to quantify the extent of the problem; instead
they simply cope with the consequences. For many countries,
an outbreak of the size the UK has experienced -- 1 500
herd outbreaks in 4 months -- would not cause serious alarm,
except for the farmers affected.
FMD is endemic in a number of developing countries.
How does it affect them?
In several ways. One issue is lost production of meat and
milk. Three weeks ago, I met a farmer in Bangladesh who owns
eight cows. When FMD hit, their milk yield dropped by over
70 per cent in just a couple of days. Last year, when FMD
struck, four out of his eight cows aborted. Of the four
calves that were born, three died. Ironically, the virus
currently hitting farmers there is probably caused by the
same Pan Asian type O strain responsible for more than
1 500 outbreaks in the United Kingdom.
Another problem is loss of animal power. For example, many
farmers in Southeast Asia rely on buffaloes to prepare their
rice paddies. Without those animals, a farmer can lose up to
half his rice production. A few years ago I calculated that
in Cambodia, an outbreak of FMD was costing an average
farming family around US$60, which is more than their annual
farmer and a cow with FMD. The cow is salivating
because of lesions in its mouth.
What are the trade implications for developing
countries hit by FMD?
Foot-and-mouth disease is important from the international
trade point of view because of the financial implications.
The developed nations try hard to keep the disease out
because it lowers milk production and slows the growth rate
of pigs and cattle, leading to massive losses. So countries
invest heavily to keep themselves free of FMD, as can be
seen from the estimated US$30 to 60 billion that it will
cost the UK to eliminate the disease.
The industrialized countries also put in place trade
barriers on livestock and livestock products as an
additional safeguard against importing the virus. As a
result, many developing nations that could export meat are
not able to enter the global markets.
Livestock movements and trends in marketing and economics
are increasing the risk of infection. For example, cattle
from South Asia can move by truck through Pakistan and
Afghanistan into Iran and on to Iraq and Turkey. Cattle they
contact along the way can then move from there, illicitly,
into intra-community trade within the European Union. That's
how mobile livestock are these days.
Cattle in a
market in Rajshahi, Bangladesh.
So what should the industrialized countries be doing
to protect themselves?
For the developed nations to be more secure in their
production, they have to do something about reducing the
risk from uncontrolled FMD and other epidemic diseases in
developing countries, and they have to see to it that there
is progressive control of them. Helping the developing
countries with this problem is enlightened self-interest,
not aid. It is a global market, and the rich countries have
to do something about the areas of the globe in which these
Where are the hotbeds of FMD?
Latin America was well on the way to eradicating the
disease, but that progress has been reversed, with
Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay all fighting outbreaks.
Elsewhere in much of Africa and Asia, the viruses -- because
there are different strains, which are very different from
each other -- are moving through the population all the
time. FMD is always present, for example, in at least one of
the countries of Southeast Asia. The problem gets worse when
an event such as the flooding of the Mekong River takes
place. People are forced to move onto higher land and
congregate their livestock, increasing virus transmission.
Returning to their villages sparks new epidemics.
Is there anywhere in the world that can be considered
safe from FMD?
Not safe, but some countries have a very good history of
control. Probably the major successes are Australia and New
Zealand, which have never been infected, and the United
States, which has been free of FMD since 1928. Europe had
been largely free in recent years, except for a couple of
incursions into Greece and Italy. But the vulnerability of
the industrialized countries is graphically illustrated by
the problem in the United Kingdom. None of these places is
free from risk, and the risk is increasing.
Whether or not to vaccinate animals against FMD has
emerged as a subject of heated debate. Where does FAO
It depends on the context. Good control of an outbreak is
certainly possible with FMD vaccine. But there are many
studies showing that stamping out an isolated outbreak of
the disease -- slaughtering infected or exposed animals --
is usually the best process. It eliminates the virus and
enables you to quickly be recognized as free from FMD, which
allows you to resume selling your cattle.
Prophylactic vaccination to keep the disease out is an
extremely expensive procedure. And you have to make sure
your vaccine strain matches the virus strains that are
threatening. How can you assess that threat when livestock
products are moving all over the world? Something that comes
from China, for example, to a European country may be
relabeled or processed and become part of some other
product. So it's not easy to know which viruses to vaccinate
the developing countries with
this problem is enlightened self-interest, not
Vaccination to get rid of the disease once it's
established is easier, since you know what virus you are
dealing with. The problem is that even after vaccination,
animals can still become infected. Infected cattle can carry
the disease for at least two years and are believed to
generate new outbreaks. And vaccine is expensive. There is
no doubt that in Southeast Asia, for example, one could
eradicate foot-and-mouth disease by vaccinating animals. But
there are around 110 million buffaloes and cattle, and if
you include pigs, the number more than doubles. So it's
unrealistic to think about a strategy based only on
29 May 2001
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