Europe vulnerable to livestock epidemics, warning delivered at FAO press conference

Transport of animals over long distances is one cause of the growing threat of livestock epidemics in Europe

Europe faces a growing threat of devastating animal disease epidemics, FAO warned at a press conference held in Brussels, Tuesday 17 February. This is mainly the result of long-distance transport of animals and increasingly dense livestock populations within certain areas in the region. Nine of the 15 major epidemic livestock diseases recorded internationally have occurred in Europe during recent years.

The trend toward moving animals and animal products over long distances has accelerated within the European Union (EU) since the creation of the single market, according to FAO. And the opening of trade routes between Europe, the Near East and the Commonwealth of Independent States could allow animals infected with diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) to enter Central or even Western Europe if they escape detection by official border controls.

Severe outbreaks of FMD in Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1996, for example, were believed to have been caused by buffalo meat on the bone imported into Albania from Asia. Control of FMD, a contagious viral disease that affects cattle, other ruminants, and pigs, was achieved by a combination of destroying infected animals and vaccination.

Dense livestock populations also favour the rapid spread of infections. In areas of Europe, farms can contain thousands of animals, kept for breeding or fattening. In certain parts of Belgium, the Netherlands and northern Germany, for example, the density of pigs can reach as many as 9 000 animals per square kilometre of agricultural land. Overcrowding has been cited as a major factor contributing to the spread of Classical Swine Fever (CSF) in those countries in 1996 and 1997. Outbreaks of CSF were recorded in some 12 countries in Europe in 1996.

Since then the situation has deteriorated even further with major epidemics in the pig-raising areas of the Netherlands and one area of Spain in 1997. Earlier this year Germany faced an outbreak of the disease in the northeastern region of the country. Some 62 000 pigs were destroyed to eradicate the disease. The epidemiological situation and control are complicated by the fact that the CSF virus is also widely established in the wild boar population in several areas in Europe.

Overcrowding has also been linked to increased pollution from animal wastes. "The high concentration of farms and animals, which favours the spread of diseases, is also a source of increasing environmental pollution, which should probably not be tolerated in the future", said Yves Leforban, Senior FAO Animal Health Officer. The Organization has urged planning authorities to introduce initiatives towards reducing this density.

Improved livestock certification and identification, as well as an effective system of checks on identity and health status of livestock, must accompany the liberalization of European trade, according to FAO. The Organization has also recommended that all European countries prepare contingency plans in order to respond immediately to any outbreak. It warned that there is a risk that the "institutional coherence" of many European veterinary services is being destroyed by two forces: the drive to reduce the size of the public sector and the fragmentation of services caused by the delegation of power from national to regional level.

17 February 1998

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