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Foot-and-Mouth Disease is more about money than public health

A grisly story came out of Britain last week. A slaughterman in Cumbria, northern England was moving the decomposing carcass of a cow killed because it was infected with hoof-and-mouth disease, when the carcass exploded, sending fluid into the man’s mouth. Yuch!

Stark images of dead cows come to mind, thousands of carcasses burning atop huge pyres in British fields. A staggering 3,352 farms have been reported infected, and 1.1 million livestock destroyed. Over a six week period in March and April alone, some 500,000 British cows have been burned, the smoke blackening the countryside.

Tests this past week revealed that the lucky man was not in fact infected with this dread disease.

Dread disease? Not really. The symptoms of a full-blown human infection resemble those of mild flu. Nor are the symptoms much more serious in an adult cow. Although highly contagious, foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) does not kill adult cows, and most recover within a few weeks.

So what is the problem? Why the uproar, and the slaughter? FMD causes canker sores on the feet of an infected cow, and in its mouth. These sores make it painful for the cow to eat, and it looses weight. Underweight and exhausted, the sickened animal is an economic drain to the cattle farmer, who livelihood depends upon selling beef. Each pound lost by the infected cow is money out of the farmer’s pocket.

The problem is not a new one for British farmers. FMD infects all animals with cloven hooves -- cows, pigs, sheep, and goats, all typical residents of British farms. FMD is one of the most contageous diseases on earth and is constantly breaking out somewhere. In the last twelve months it has struck in Russia, China, Africa and South America.

Why not develop a vaccine so farmers can protect their livestock -- and farm incomes -- from this scourge? We have. Cheap, highly effective vaccines made from dead FMD viruses have been available for over 20 years. Although periodic booster shots are required, the vaccines have been used for decades in South America and Europe to successfully eradicate FMD outbreaks.

Until 1991 farmers in Britain and most other European countries had their cattle vaccinated yearly to prevent FMD, and as a result there were no serious outbreaks. That year, however, the European Union (that is, the countries of Europe) banned the use of vaccines and switched to its current policy -- killing infected cattle.

They banned FMD vaccination because it is not currently possible to distinguish between an infected cow (which has FMD antibodies because it is fighting a FMD infection) and a vaccinated cow (which has FMD antibodies because the vaccine creates them to protect the cow).

This is where money comes into the picture. The United States and Japan, which are FMD-free, refuse to import meat or animals that have been vaccinated, as these animals can’t be distinguished from infected ones.

The European Union banned FMD vaccination to enable European countries to export to the United States and Japan. It was just a matter of money. On balance, the E.U. regulators calculated that it would be cheaper to slaughter hundreds of thousands of animals once in a while than vaccinate all of them every year. There had not been an outbreak of FMD in Europe for many years, and I guess the lucrative U.S. and Japanese export market for beef was just too great a temptation for them to resist.

In hindsight, I’m sure they wish they had done it differently. But in light of what has happened, should Europeans start vaccinating their cows now? Of course. However, their regulators are still uncertain -- they just can’t let go of the idea of those lost export markets.

While they are making up their minds, they might be able to avoid killing so many cows. A company called United Biochemical in New York has developed a test to distinguish vaccinated from infected animals. The text detects if FMD virus has been actively replicating, by looking for the proteins that copy FMD genes. Infected animals have these proteins, vaccinated animals do not.

Meanwhile, in this country, an ocean away from Britain, we wait to see if foot-and-mouth disease will reach our shores. Our last outbreak was in 1929, and like our European cousins we have concluded that a new outbreak is unlikely here. So we don’t vaccinate our cows.

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