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Officials outline response to foot-and-mouth disease

When the topic is foot-and-mouth disease, the phrase “not if, but when” is enough to create terror in the minds of farmers all across cattle country.

That one surfaced in a workshop at Agricultural Media Summit in Albuquerque, N.M., in early August. The purpose of the workshop was to let professionals in ag communications know what kind of preparations are being made to respond to an outbreak of the disease, which has not been seen in the United States since 1929.

Patrick Webb, director of swine health programs for the National Pork Board, said that the risk of an outbreak is much greater today than it has been in the past.

“There are active infections of the virus in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and in some places in South America,” he said. “The increase in international travel alone creates a risk of the virus being carried into the United States.”

FMD infects cloven-hoofed animals, which include swine, cattle, goats, sheep and deer. It typically multiples rapidly in swine and is easily transmitted to other susceptible animals. It is not typically fatal, but causes painful blisters on the hooves, mouths and esophaguses of infected animals. It can cause aborted calves and a drop in meat and milk production.

Humans cannot contract FMD from contact with infected animals, or from eating meat or drinking milk from animals with FMD. They can however, harbor the virus on their shoes or clothing, or in their nasal passages, and can transmit it to susceptible animals.

Key Points

• Experts say foot-and-mouth disease in the U.S. is a matter of “when, not if.”

• Infection is alive in many parts of the world, including Asia.

• International travel increases the risk of the infection coming here.

And that is the reason, Webb said, that planners are thinking of FMD as a “when” rather than an “if.”

“The more we have folks traveling into areas where the infection is active, the more the risk goes up,” he said.

An outbreak would mean an immediate shutdown of exports of live animals and meat and increased security. The estimated cost of an outbreak in the United States is about $12.8 billion per year, with a 10-year time frame from outbreak to full recovery. The USDA estimates that would cost more than 150,000 jobs.

Guarding against an outbreak and planning for a response is considered a national security issue.

The knowledge of that risk has led USDA and related agencies to partner with livestock organizations, including the beef checkoff, pork checkoff and the American Sheep Institute, to develop a plan for responding to the arrival of an outbreak.

He said USDA estimates that it will take about 14 days from the first infection for the disease to be detected.

Given that on any given day, about 600,000 pigs are on trucks somewhere being moved from one facility to another, and often from one state to another, a single infection is extremely likely to spread across much of the country before anyone even knows it is here.

“The chances of finding the disease on a single farm and stamping it out before it spreads are slim to none,” Webb said.

There is technology that would allow for surveillance of the FMD virus by running tests before a load of hogs or cattle move from one place to another, Webb said, but the price tag of trying to implement that is high.

“With the risk as low as it is today, there isn’t justification for that kind of expense,” he said. “If there were an outbreak anywhere in North America, there would probably be a move to step up surveillance testing.”

Teresa Roof, National Pork Board public relations manager, represented the cross-species FMD team at the workshop.

She explained that it is the “when, not if” scenario that makes planning for response so critical.

“The idea is to have an umbrella plan for all communications responses,” she said.

The team has prepared scientific fact sheets that have been verified accurate and approved for release to help the media in covering an outbreak.

A website, www.footandmouthdisease.org, has been established to provide access to initial statements, contact information for spokespersons and continuously updated information during an outbreak.

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This article published in the September, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.