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Major foot-and-mouth outbreak in Egypt threatens the region

Mobilizing vaccines, strong regional coordinated action crucial

Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano
Egyptian farmer feeding cow
22 March 2012, Rome - Urgent action is required to control a major outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and prevent its spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East, which could have serious implications for food security in the region, FAO warned today. With vaccines urgently needed, international and regional organizations are at the ready to assist in developing a regional prevention, preparedness and action plan.

In Egypt 40 222 cases of the disease are suspected, according to official estimates, and  4 658 animals, mostly calves, have already died.  

According to FAO's livestock census data, 6.3 million buffalo and cattle and 7.5 million sheep and goats are at risk in Egypt. Although foot-and-mouth disease has circulated in the country for some years, this is an entirely new introduction of a virus strain known as SAT2, and livestock have no immune protection against it.

Urgent action

Further to a request by the Egyptian Government, an FAO emergency team was in the country last week assessing the situation with veterinary authorities. They jointly set up a first line of containment measures and the roll out  of a national FMD control strategy. The strategy is focused on limiting the disease's spread by implementing biosecurity measures and by use of vaccination when available.

"We are working closely to support the government to bring the outbreak under control. The area around the Lower Nile Delta appears to be severely affected, while other areas in Upper Egypt and the west appear less so," said Juan Lubroth, FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer, calling for strong action to prevent the disease from spreading further.

In order to help prevent the spread of the virus, livestock attendants are urged to take a series of measures including: limiting animal movements and avoiding contact with animals from other farms; avoiding purchasing animals in the immediate term since they could have come from contaminated sources; and properly disposing of carcasses preferably by incineration or, failing that, by burying them.

Vaccines in short supply

Vaccines are in limited supply for the FMD virus now present in Egypt. The country has some reserves of its own vaccines, but these do not protect against the SAT2 strain, and Egypt could need regional support in mobilizing effective ones. Even if they become available quickly, vaccines sometimes take up to two weeks to confer immunity, so FAO is urging coordination at all levels of government to implement biosecurity measures to limit the spread of the disease.

Foot-and-mouth disease affects all cloven-hoofed animals, including sheep, goats, cattle, buffalo and pigs. It causes serious production losses and can be lethal, particularly to younger animals.

Meat and milk from sick animals are unsafe for consumption, not because FMD affects humans, but because foodstuffs entering the food chain should only come from animals that are known to be healthy.

The virus that causes FMD passes rapidly between animals through airborne  droplets and normal contact, but humans in close contact with animals can transport it too via the soles of shoes, or on their hands or clothing. Foot-and-mouth disease is not a direct threat to humans.