Million animals 'could have been spared the cull'

October 4, 2001 The Daily Telegraph (London) by Roger Highfield
THE REASON that foot and mouth has blighted some counties rather than others, and that 10 times more animals have been slaughtered than in the 1967 epidemic, is shown today by the most thorough analysis so far.

Two detailed studies by teams that advised the Government on handling the latest epidemic agree that culling is essential for bringing it under control.

However, they also repeat suggestions reported by The Daily Telegraph that the slaughter of more than one million animals could have been avoided if controls had been implemented promptly. Prof Neil Ferguson, Dr Christl Donnelly and Prof Roy Anderson of Imperial College, London, publish one analysis in Nature. The second, by Dr Matt Keeling of Cambridge University and colleagues from Edinburgh University and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is published in Science.

The policy of local culls has cut the number of farms that lost livestock by more than half, compared to tackling only infected premises, they say.

But the overall number of cases could have been reduced by 16 per cent (saving 30 per cent of animals culled, about 1.3 million) if the infected premises and contiguous premises cull policy had been fully implemented from April 1.

However, unlike the delay in introducing contiguous culls, vaccination would not have had much impact on the course of the epidemic, said Dr Keeling.

The key factors that aided the spread of the disease included the incidence of large farms with many animals that were significantly more infectious and susceptible than smaller ones and the number of fragmented farms - made up of scattered fields - which had a much higher risk of transmission.

The latter is one reason why Cumbrian farms were harder hit than those in Devon or Wales. They are significantly more fragmented and this led to increased transmission probably as a result of greater movement of people and vehicles between land parcels.

Cattle farms were most susceptible to the virus, with sheep farms less so, and pig farms the least susceptible.

The research suggests why the new outbreak was so much more severe than in 1967, when only 440,000 animals were slaughtered.

The latest epidemic was spread much more quickly by animal movements (up to two million in the period between the movement ban and the first infection); farms tend to be larger today; and delays in achieving a target of culling on infected farms within 24 hours and neighbouring farms within 48 hours.

The Imperial team has drawn up foot and mouth "risk maps" showing that the Derbyshire Dales and south-west Wales, which have not yet been affected, are potential hot spots.

"They warrant heightened surveillance and continued vigilance in maintaining movement controls and biosecurity measures," said Prof Ferguson.

The median distance the disease spread this time was 4 km (2 1/2 miles), he said, which suggests that most transmission probably occurred through the movement of animals, people or vehicles, rather than through animal contact or windborne spread.

Both teams warn that with colder conditions on the way farmers need to be alert to the risks of relaxing controls.

Dr Donnelly said: "As the weather gets cooler and the virus is able to survive longer, we are in danger of seeing significant outbreaks of the epidemic again."

Prof Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University said: "Our analysis also confirms that the culling policy introduced in late March was essential to bring the disease under control.

"Modelling the impact of various vaccination programmes show these to be less effective than culling and possibly insufficient to bring the disease under control."

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