Foot-and-mouth controls should tighten
UK livestock disease curbs strengthened but not infallible.
Nearly four years since Britain's farms were ravaged by foot-and-mouth disease, the country could still do more to thwart a repeat outbreak, according to the Royal Society.
Four million sheep, cows and other animals were slaughtered in 2001 in a desperate effort to control the most serious British epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease in over 30 years. At the time, authorities were criticised for their lack of preparedness.
Several years on, the government has taken important steps to avert a future outbreak, says the report, published on 20 December. "Overall, congratulations are in order," says Brian Follett, chair of the Royal Society's inquiry into infectious disease in livestock.
First, the government has taken steps to prevent the disease entering the country by clamping down on imported meat and animal feed that might harbour the virus. Second, it has made moves to stop a small outbreak escalating into a full-scale epidemic by, for example, making faster diagnoses and introducing measures to freeze movement of infected animals immediately.
But on the down side, the panel concludes that the government is not fully prepared to thwart the disease by vaccinating animals. Vaccination was not used in the 2001 British epidemic, partly because it is difficult to tell animals that have been vaccinated from those that have been infected, as both produce a similar immune response.
Tests to distinguish vaccinated and infected animals have now become available and vaccination is considered a first line of defence. But the tests have not yet been validated and so are not ready to use, the report says.
The country also lacks the infrastructure to ensure that vaccines and tests could be deployed on a massive scale, Follett says, and there is no clear commitment to use it widely: "All the pieces are not linked up; there's a chance [the system] would be overwhelmed."
The report urges the government to re-visit its emergency plans every few years to ensure that these remain adequate as farming practices change. It follows a previous report released by the Royal Society in 2002, which reviewed aspects of the government's control strategy.
The government has already taken steps to identify remaining shortfalls in its foot-and-mouth strategy. Exercise Hornbeam, for example, simulated days seven and eight of a disease outbreak in June this year.
There is an urgent need for a vaccine that can prevent the disease from taking root in animals in the first place, adds Follett, rather than simply protecting them from the symptoms of the disease. "I don't see much research going on - it should be an international issue," he says.