Cull let-up could double new cases

Cull let-up could double new cases

August 13, 2001 The Daily Telegraph (London) by Roger Highfield

FOOT and mouth cases could double once again, according to a mathematical analysis which shows that the epidemic remains delicately balanced.

Tony Blair said at the start of May that the control effort was on the home straight. However, the disease has dragged on, with most days seeing new outbreaks.

"If we relax biosecurity, movement restrictions or the cull, we will see a significant resurgence," said Prof Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College.

He is tracking the epidemic using a parameter called R, the "case reproduction ratio".

When each outbreak generates an average of more than one subsequent outbreak, the ratio is greater than one and the epidemic has the potential to spiral out of control. Latest figures show that R now "hovers above and below one, week on week".

The virus is killed by sunlight and hindered by dry conditions and Prof Ferguson said that, "if we don't get it right in the next month or two, we will face an even more difficult challenge as winter approaches".

The average rate of new cases had remained at around three and a half each day for some weeks and "it is an incredibly unusual scenario to have constant numbers of cases over half the duration of this sort of epidemic".

Prof Ferguson's team was one of four groups of epidemiologists which in March showed that the epidemic was out of control. It also predicted that the epidemic would be almost beaten by the June 7 election date if culls took place on infected premises within 24 hours and on nearby premises within 48 hours. At the end of May, there was a sigh of relief when the worst of the epidemic was over. The R value had plummeted between March and April. "Had it remained at that level, the epidemic would have gone extinct," said Prof Ferguson.

However, the predictions were based on assumptions about controls and the epidemic dragged on because of a failure in those measures.

"We have never met the contiguous cull target," he said, adding that, even now, only a third of contiguous farms were culled within 48 hours. "It would probably be extinct by now if we had implemented these measures from March onwards."

But the study shows that only half the reason for the resurgence is a failure to conduct a prompt cull.

"I do think that farmer fatigue is playing a role," he said, adding that vehicle movements had been a key factor in spreading the virus. The outbreaks in new regions, the first being in Settle, North Yorks, were due to licensed animal movements.

"That allowed the infection to become established before anyone realised," said Prof Ferguson. Each new hot spot has been limited, showing that culling can bring the epidemic under control.

The science advisory group, chaired by Prof David King, urged the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to tighten up movement and biosecurity in the past few days, with new restrictions introduced in Thirsk and Penrith.

Meanwhile the Government refused to condemn comments from Lord Haskins, in charge of the agriculture recovery programme, who said that farmers who had lost their stock to the disease had "come out best" in financial terms.

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