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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 face.

FAO animal health officer Peter Roeder

How widespread is foot-and-mouth disease in the developing world?
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.

A Bangladeshi farmer and a cow with FMD. The cow is salivating because of lesions in its mouth.

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 disposable income.

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.

Cattle in a market in Rajshahi, Bangladesh.

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.

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 diseases exist.

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 stand?
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.

"Helping the developing countries with
this problem is enlightened self-interest, not aid."


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 against.

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 vaccination.

29 May 2001


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