Army, CIA part of drive to keep foot-and-mouth disease out

April 22, 2001 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Ann McFeatters

As Britain slaughters livestock by the hundreds of thousands at an economic cost rising into the tens of billions of dollars, federal and state officials across the United States are mobilizing to prevent foot-and-mouth disease from landing in this country or spreading if it does.

Over the past two weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army, even the CIA have been plotting strategy against the highly contagious virus.

Why the Army? To help quarantine farms and destroy animals, if necessary.

Why the CIA? In case terrorists plot to import the disease.

"The disease can be devastating to the economy of an infected country," warns the Agriculture Department.

Example No. 1 is Britain, from which foot-and-mouth has now spread to Ireland, France and the Netherlands.

But with the U.S. economy toying with recession, federal officials also are looking back with worry at the last U.S. outbreak in 1929. Foot-and-mouth disease swept the land, deepening the Great Depression.

Billions of dollars and thousands of livelihoods are at stake for farmers, traders and retailers in Pennsylvania alone, which ranks 14th among the states in sales of livestock and poultry at about $3 billion a year.

This past week, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture started offering foot-and-mouth presentations for farmers throughout the state.

"It's been a really good turnout, and we're getting a lot of good questions," said department representative Dr. Nan Hanshaw Roberts. "The key is to catch it early. In England they didn't catch it for several weeks. The fact it is such a contagious disease has put us all on alert."

Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have international airports where travelers arrive directly from abroad. Passengers on incoming flights are now being warned about carrying potentially contaminated items, especially if they've visited rural areas in Europe. The fine for failing to report having been on a farm in an infected country is $1,000.

Customs agents, aided by sniffing beagles, are searching for food or other contraband. Shoes of travelers who may have trampled on diseased ground are being bleached on arrival. Yet federal officials still worry that someone somehow will introduce the virus to the United States.

Pennsylvania authorities have considered vaccinating the state's cloven-hoofed animals as a precaution -- as have officials in Britain -- but don't believe it's practical. Vaccinated animals can become unsymptomatic carriers if exposed to the virus. They also can register positive on tests for the disease, which would likely mean Pennsylvania and all U.S. livestock would lose its "free of FMD" status and could no longer be exported.

If foot-and-mouth disease does find its way to the United States, the first farm where it shows up would be quarantined. Any animal that tests positive would be immediately destroyed, as would any animal likely to have come in contact with it. Nearby farm equipment and structures would be decontaminated.

If foot-and-mouth began to spread in Pennsylvania, there's no telling how many of the state's 1.1 million hogs and pigs and 5.1 million cattle would have to be destroyed. Great Britain has slaughtered nearly a half million animals so far, with another half million to go. The carcasses are burned and buried.

Humans are not susceptible to the disease [Common misconception]. Only one case has been reported -- a British farmer in 1966 [There have been at least 37 proven human cases--BSE coordinator]. But rats, hedgehogs and deer are. Pennsylvania has an enormous deer population.

The agriculture department is warning livestock producers to watch their animals for signs of blisters on the snout, between toes, inside nostrils and on the tongue; lameness; lack of interest in food; fever; foamy saliva; decreased production of milk; falloff in fertility; spontaneous abortions or weight loss.

What terrifies agriculture officials is how quickly the disease spreads. It can be passed on droplets, on shoes, on equipment and through semen, milk, urine, feces and saliva. People who pick up the virus on their shoes or clothing can contaminate healthy animals for several weeks. Almost all exposed animals get the disease, usually showing symptoms within two to 16 days. Most do not die from it but become weak and unproductive.

Pennsylvania livestock producers have been told to report any suspicious animals, to limit vehicles and visitors on their farms, to isolate new animals, to be careful in sharing equipment with other farms and to not feed garbage to pigs.

The USDA even tells tourists who have visited farms in infected countries to bathe, shampoo, clean their nostrils and gargle with disinfecting mouthwash.

But even as livestock producers say the prospect of a foot-and-mouth epidemic scares them plenty, there is some good news. An outbreak in 1952 in Canada and another in Mexico in 1954 were kept from spreading across the border to the United States. And every country which has battled foot-and-mouth disease has managed ultimately to eradicate it.

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