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Three cull workers contract rare disease; Foot And Mouth Soldiers Who Worked On Northumberland Farms Fall Victim To Q Fever * Health Officials Warned To Look For Symptoms

Three cull workers contract rare disease;
Foot And Mouth Soldiers Who Worked On Northumberland Farms Fall Victim To Q Fever
Health Officials Warned To Look For Symptoms

June 28, 2001 The Guardian (London)  by James Meikle

Three soldiers have become the first human victims of the foot and mouth epidemic, falling ill to a rare disease, Q fever, which they apparently caught while burying the carcasses of culled animals.

GPs and other public health officials around Britain have been put on alert to monitor patients displaying symptoms of acute flu or pneumonia who might have worked on farms or on the slaughter programme during the month before they complained of illness.

All should be offered screening through a blood test, health officials said yesterday. The disease can be fatal, but often shows few or no symptoms.

The three soldiers are said to have been infected while disposing of carcasses in Northumberland.

Two of them, who were treated in hospital after complaining of flu-like symptoms, including breathing problems, on May 6 and May 11, are recovering after being released. They had worked together on several farms in the county.

The third soldier, who had worked on at least one of the same farms, is also recovering from the disease. It was not clear last night whether he had needed hospital treatment.

The outbreak was revealed on the website of the public health laboratory service, the government's monitor of infectious diseases, but has not been announced by the Department of Health, in stark contrast to the food standards agency which has so far had two press conferences to reveal possible health hazards from pyres.

Officials at the health department insisted the general public was unlikely to be at increased risk of the disease from burial of animal carcasses during the epidemic. Yet its own risk assessment prepared earlier in the foot and mouth crisis suggests the bacteria might be released for months from burial sites and also that local populations could be at a low risk of exposure through contaminated dust and food.

People handling animals are at particular risk of catching the disease, especially from pregnant sheep and cattle, many of which have been slaughtered during the cull. So far 2.76m sheep, 537,000 cattle and 128,000 pigs have been killed. Most have been buried, although health officials say organisms involved would be destroyed in pyres.

Thousands of vets, slaughtermen and troops have been involved in the cull. There have been 1,788 confirmed outbreaks of foot and mouth, but animals on more than 7,000 farms have been killed as a precaution.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said yesterday: It is known the people who have had it so far have not had it through food. They were involved directly in disposal.'

The bacteria involved were pretty much everywhere in the countryside'. He added: It is a known risk. The disease itself is not a high risk disease. The exposure among people who work on farms is very high because the bacteria are so common and widespread.'

Six other people, believed to be soldiers, have been screened for possible infection but tests proved negative.

The army issued guidance to all its soldiers involved in the disposal of carcasses to wear protective clothing including disposable face masks. A Min istry of Defence spokeswoman said: This is like flu. You take antibiotics and get better. Clearly we have a duty of care to our people. The divisional operation order did warn of the hazards.'

The laboratory service has also advised doctors to watch out for another disease, psittacosis, which can be spread by pregnant sheep and has long been a risk to pregnant women. Most of the emphasis early in the foot and mouth crisis was on detecting human cases of foot and mouth, which can in rare cases transfer to humans. About 35 people have undergone tests for this after showing blisters or lesions, but none of them has been found to have the condition.

There has also been concern that BSE-infected cattle were buried early in the cull; all older animals now have to be burned. Special report on foot and mouth at guardian.co.uk/footandmouth


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