Fears grow that second wave of disease may sweep UK

Fears grow that second wave of disease may sweep UK

June 18, 2001 The Irish Times by Rachel Donnelly

The impact of foot-and-mouth disease on British farming and tourism has been catastrophic. The estimated cost of the disease to the rural economy is (pounds) 12 billion sterling, several farmers have committed suicide and more cases of foot-and-mouth are still being found.

Fresh outbreaks of the disease have been confirmed in areas thought to be low-risk, where cases had not occurred during the height of the epidemic and at a time when farmers probably thought they had avoided the devastation heaped upon their friends in Cumbria and the West Country.

Clusters of foot-and-mouth have been found around Settle, North Yorkshire, in Cheshire and in parts of the West Country since the end of May, prompting fears that the epidemic will have a "bumpy tail".

Scientists investigating the outbreak believe the most likely explanation for the new cases is transmission from sheep to cattle and some have suggested new cases could still be found long after this summer.

Their concern is due to this being the time of year when sheep move down from high ground to feed in the fields and valleys. Once they are present in lowland areas, it is possible some of the animals showing symptoms of the disease which were undetected would mix with cattle, infecting new herds.

Foot-and-mouth may have been on the wane and the government's chief scientist, Mr David King, may have predicted that the number of confirmed cases would drop to one a day by early June, but this weekend alone four new cases in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Lancashire were detected.

At the end of May the worst news was confirmed for farmers in the "Settle triangle" in Yorkshire and in Devon and Somerset. Foot-and-mouth was detected on farms that had escaped the march of the disease through the countryside at the peak of the outbreak at the end of March, when 50 cases a day were being found.

In a period of about two weeks at the end of May, 28 new cases were detected in the Yorkshire Dales and North Yorkshire near Settle, while animals within a five-mile radius of the cluster were being tested for the disease. At the same time, the first outbreak in Devon for more than a week was confirmed near Wembworthy, while suspected cases, such as one at a farm near Bridgwater in Somerset earlier this month, have led to the slaughter of more animals.

"We are not out of this yet," Mr Dick Silbey, president of the British Cattle Veterinary Association, warned last week. "Settle is a classic example. It was thought to be low-risk, then wallop."

Within the past week, scientists have been warning of a "nightmare scenario" that will leave large parts of the British countryside in crisis if fresh outbreaks of foot-and-mouth continue to occur in previously unaffected areas. Blood testing on some sheep has already begun to discover whether they have succumbed to the disease, in an attempt to head off further outbreaks.

But as farmers brace themselves for a possible second wave of foot-and-mouth, army personnel and slaughtermen have returned to the countryside to oversee the destruction and disposal of more animals.

Agricultural shows, such as the one that took place near Peterborough last week, and the reopening of some countryside footpaths offer small signs of recovery in the agriculture and tourism industry. But the full cost to tourism and farming as a result of cancelled bookings and empty hotels and unemployment has yet to have its full impact on the economy.

The Labour government has been severely criticised by farmers over its handling of the crisis, in particular the controversial policy of contiguous culls and the mass burning of animals with its potential damage to the environment.

One of the government's scientific advisers has recently argued that contiguous culls - the slaughter of animals on premises next to infected areas - were unnecessary since airborne transmission of foot-and-mouth was probably less than 100 metres.

But the tragedy of foot-and-mouth has not just been the slaughter of over three million sheep, cattle, goats and pigs, but the isolation, depression and fear experienced by the farming community. The disease has seeped into the lives of desperate farmers facing the loss of a lifetime's work on the land and a few have chosen suicide as their escape.

As the government urges farmers not let down their guard, it seems the prospect of further suffering for the countryside is not far away.

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