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Archive: 1999 Session - Appendix 5

1999 Session of the Research Group of the Standing Technical Committee of EuFMD


Foot-and-mouth disease in western North Africa... an analysis of the risk for Europe

A I Donaldson Institute for Animal Health, Pirbright, Woking, Surrey GU24 ONF


The main features of the epidemiology of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in western North Africa are reviewed and the agricultural products exported from that part of North Africa to Europe are identified. Livestock, fresh and frozen meat produced in western North Africa are normally consumed locally and not exported. Since the 1999 declarations of FMD by Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria the European Union has imposed an embargo on imports of all animal products from those countries. It is concluded that the perceived risk of the spread of FMD from western North Africa to Europe through official trading activities is extremely small. However, the possibility that illegal shipments of animal products from North Africa to Europe may occur cannot be excluded. The experience of customs officials in developed countries is that the smuggling of animal products is most often associated with people originating from developing countries. The perceived risk of FMD for Europe through smuggling is most likely therefore to be associated with immigrants of North African origin who have settled in the cities of Europe. A major demographic shift in this direction has occurred in recent years, especially into Spain, Italy and France. The quantity of animal products which may be smuggled by these ethnic groups is not known so the risk of the spread of FMD to Europe cannot be determined statistically. The actions required to minimise the risk of the spread of FMD from North Africa to Europe by illegally transported animal products are outlined.



During the last thirty years foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) has occurred sporadically in the western part of North Africa but has remained endemic in the eastern part of the region (Samuel et al. 1999). Outbreaks in western North Africa, once initiated, have generally reached epidemic proportions. Sometimes just one country has been affected, on other occasions two or more have been involved (Table 1). The serotypes causing the epidemics and their origins have differed. For example, the origin of the 1977-78 type A Morocco-Algeria epidemic was South America. Spain was the source of the type A virus which caused the 1983 Morocco epidemic. The 1989-92 type O epidemic which spread across the region from Libya to Morocco was of Middle Eastern origin (Taylor and Tufan 1996; Samuel et al. 1999). The 1999 type O epidemic in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia probably originated from West Africa (D Ansell and N J Knowles, unpublished results).


Main features of FMD in the western part of the North African region

Circumstantial evidence suggests that the epidemics of FMD in western North Africa during the last three decades have been associated with the importation of infected animals. In the majority of instances infected sheep have been responsible but in a few cases it has been cattle. Once outbreaks have begun in western North Africa local spread has most commonly been associated with the movement of sheep. For example, in the 1983 Morocco epidemic sheep going through a series of markets resulted in a chain of outbreaks extending from the north of the country to Agadir in the south. During the 1989-92 type O regional epidemic, which spread from Libya to Morocco, mainly sheep were affected. Outbreaks began in Morocco in December 1990 and by August 1991 the attack rates reported in sheep, goats and cattle were 92.7%, 7% and 0.3%, respectively (Samuel et al. 1999). However, in the 1999 type O epidemic in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco cattle were the species predominantly affected at the start of the epidemic in Algeria (Mackay 1999; Anon 1999). Sheep have been the species generally associated with the spread of disease between countries in the region. Cross-border movement of animals in North Africa is largely unrestricted. Many million sheep are exported from Algeria each year, the majority moving westwards into Morocco (Anon 1999). The rearing and fattening of animals is transhumance in nature and the movement of animals for slaughter increases around the time of religious festivals. When FMD virus is present its coincidental spread is very rapid at these times. The importance of sheep in the epidemiology of FMD in the western part of North Africa is a reflection of their species predominance and because the clinical signs which they manifest are often mild or not apparent (Donaldson and Sellers 1999). Disease in sheep is likely to be missed or confused with other diseases such as bluetongue. Often the first recognition of the presence of virus is when cattle are seen with lesions. An exception to this is when the virus enters a flock or herd when young animals are present. Under such circumstances the young stock are likely to be infected and show a high rate of mortality due to acute myocarditis and heart failure. This occurred in the winter of 1989 in Tunisia when a mortality rate of 100% was observed in some flocks and resulted in a total loss of over 51,000 lambs (Samuel et al. 1999). While sheep can be regarded as the amplifiers and spreaders of FMD in North Africa, cattle are the indicators. This is especially the case when vaccination coverage is low or at the start of a new epidemic when a different serotype enters the region. In the 1999 type O epidemic in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco the early outbreaks in Algeria were linked with a cattle trading centre and local markets. Beef cattle accounted for 90% of the cases, the remainder were comprised of cows of local breeds, some heifers and milking cows (Anon 1999). Another feature of the epidemiology of FMD in western North Africa is the finding of seropositive small ruminants many months after the last reported clinical cases. This was found in Morocco during mid-1984 following the type A epidemic the previous year (A I Donaldson, unpublished results) and in Morocco during surveys between 1992 and 1996 (Mackay 1999). These findings suggest that the virus continues to circulate subclinically in small ruminants. However, the possibility that vaccination caused some of the antibody-positive samples cannot be excluded. Similar results were obtained with sheep sera following the 1994 type O epidemic in Greece (Mackay et al. 1995) and provoked the idea that FMD infection in sheep populations may be self-limiting. This possibility is currently being investigated at the IAH, Pirbright.


Agriculture in western North Africa and export trade with Europe

Information about the agricultural industries and exports from the countries in the western part of North Africa i.e. Morocco, Algeria and Morocco, was obtained from the Internet, text books (Anon 1996 and 1997) and the Ministry of Agriculture, Morocco. In Morocco, agriculture employs more than 40% of the working population. The main agricultural exports are fruit, vegetables and fish. MoroccoÔs main trading partner is France followed by the other European Union countries. According to officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, the exports do not include live animals, fresh or frozen meat (D K J Mackay personal communication, 1999). Sheep intestines for sausage skins are normally exported but this trade has been banned since the 1999 declaration of FMD. Farm products such as straw or hay are not used for the packaging of goods for export. The agricultural sector in Algeria produces grapes, cereals and citrus fruits for export. The countryÔs main trading partners are France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Animal production is geared to domestic consumption and neither livestock nor meat are exported to Europe. Agriculture and mining are the foundations of TunisiaÔs economy. The main agricultural products are wheat, barley, olive oil, wine and fruit, but large quantities of other foodstuffs have to be imported. France and Italy are TunisiaÔs principal trading partners. Livestock and meat are not exported to Europe. Risk of spread of FMD virus from western North Africa to Europe In considering the risk of spread of FMD from western North Africa to Europe the following factors were considered:

  • the geographical proximity of western North Africa to Europe
  • the lack of official trade from western North Africa to Europe of goods such as live animals, meat, unprocessed animal products and packaging materials of farm origin
  • the absence of a pig industry in western North Africa and therefore of sufficient quantities of airborne virus to spread disease to Europe when outbreaks occur
  • the deterrent effect of the intensive naval surveillance in the Straits of Gibraltar and western Mediterranean directed against the smuggling of drugs and illegal immigrants

Livestock, meat and unprocessed animal products produced in western North Africa are normally consumed locally and not exported. Currently a ban has been imposed by the European Union on imports of animal products from western North Africa as a result of the 1999 declarations of FMD by Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The probability of the spread of FMD from western North Africa to Europe by legal trade is therefore extremely small. However, animal products could be smuggled and, if contaminated, would constitute a serious risk. The experience of customs officials in developing countries is that the smuggling of animal products is most often associated with ethnic minority groups originating from developing countries, particularly people from agricultural backgrounds. Smuggling by such people is generally not done for commercial gain but as gifts from relatives or friends. The people smuggling the products are usually ignorant of the risks posed to animal health. In recent years there has been a very sizeable migration of people from North Africa to Europe, especially to the major cities in Spain, France and Italy. Many of the people in these ethnic minority groups make periodic visits to their homelands and it is very probable that some of them bring back animal products to Europe. In addition, some may receive animal products through the post sent by relatives or friends in North Africa. The quantity of animal products shipped from North Africa to Europe in this way is unknown and so the risk of spread of FMD can only be acknowledged and not determined statistically (Starr et al. 1976).

The distance between the coastline of western North Africa and southern Europe is not great, for example between Morocco and Spain it is less than 25km and between Tunisia and Sicily it is less than 200km. Fishing boats and yachts go back and forth across the seaway and it is a matter of conjecture as to whether animal products are sometimes smuggled. Should smuggling occur when virus is circulating in North Africa there would be a risk for Europe. However, to the authorÔs knowledge, there are no records in recent times of FMD having been introduced into Europe from North Africa through legal or illegal trading activities.




Minimising the risks

The safeguards which should be implemented to minimise the risk of the spread of FMD from western North Africa to Europe include:

  • the maintenance of effective systems of disease surveillance, reporting and control of FMD in western North Africa

  • the education of travellers and tourists about the risks to animal health of animal products

  • the maintenance of coastguard patrols in the western Mediterranean

  • the vigilance and cooperation of customs officials at ports and airports in Europe

  • the destruction of foodstuffs removed from ships and aircraft at ports of entry into Europe

  • the effective heat treatment of waste food from restaurants and institutions before it is fed to animals.




Nigel Ferris of the FAO/OIE World Reference Laboratory for FMD is thanked for providing FMD surveillance data for North Africa.



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  • Table 1: Outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in North Africa since 1977*