Maff reveals 1,500 more virus farms Hidden cases double foot and mouth toll

MAFF reveals 1,500 more virus farms
Hidden cases double foot and mouth toll

May 26, 2001 The Daily Telegraph (London) by Charles Clover

THE true number of farms infected with foot and mouth disease so far is likely to be more than 3,000, almost double the present official total of 1,640.

About 1,500 "missing" cases are now estimated, by the Ministry of Agriculture, to exist among the farms culled as "dangerous contacts".

The results of the first analysis of tests from those farms, obtained yesterday by The Daily Telegraph, indicate that at least one in four of 5,850 farms culled as dangerous contacts was infected.

This is a "significant" number, the ministry says. It appears to justify the scale of the cull in which three million animals have been slaughtered.

These latest estimates show as clearly as will ever be known that this outbreak has exceeded 1967 in the number of infected premises and the number of slaughtered animals.

In 1967 there were 2,364 confirmed outbreaks, resulting in the slaughter of 442,000 animals.

Senior ministry officials, who have spent two weeks checking the results, hope that they will correct a widespread impression among farmers and vets that the official total of infected cases is too low and that civil servants have been "leant on" to massage the figures during the election campaign.

Until now, it has been impossible to estimate how many cases were concealed among the dangerous contact culls of farms bordering those with known outbreaks.

The ministry has admitted that dangerous contacts, which it ordered to be culled within 48 hours of a neighbouring infection, were tested only infrequently because of the need to concentrate on stopping the spread of the disease.

However, it has now disclosed that samples of 421 dangerous contacts were tested by vets and sent for analysis by the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright in Surrey.

Some 295 of these were negative and 107 were positive. Nineteen produced no result because of contamination or other reasons.

Officials say they are still examining more tests which were carried out by vets and epidemiologists for their own purposes and not officially recorded. But the proportion of infected cases is not likely to alter greatly.

The official admission that about a quarter of the 5,850 dangerous contact farms where livestock was slaughtered - 1,400 to 1,500 - had the disease is something that many farmers and vets suspected at the time. A senior ministry official said: "We cannot be absolutely sure that the sample is entirely indicative, but there is no reason at the moment to believe that it is not.

"The key thing is that anything like a quarter is a pretty significant number. A quarter of animals showing signs of the disease means that there is a serious problem you need to hammer down on quickly.

"That is a heck of a lot of premises showing signs of the disease, which, if we had not slaughtered quickly, would have spread the infection."

The ministry's figures must be seen as a "first draft of history" until its statisticians have been able to go through the 421 cases to find out why vets or epidemiologists sent samples for testing. That task is likely to take months.

The information is not likely to appear on the internet because of uncertainty about the number of samples that have not been included, thought to number another 200 or so.

Officials say privately that their reluctance to make data available until now owes more to their concern to avoid mistakes - in view of a likelyinvestigation by the National Audit Office - than to any direction from politicians.

Chris Bostock, the director of the Government's Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright, said: "The official record was always likely to be incomplete because not all the data were available."

He said it should be made clear that the estimate of 1,500 "missed" cases was an assumption that might or might not be correct.

It would not be possible to be sure until the reasons for testing all the cases had been examined to see if the results were representative.

"The general point is that the ministry may not have given all the figures because it was overwhelmed. I am not aware of any attempt to mislead the public."

Tim Yeo, the Tories' agriculture spokesman, said: "These figures will confirm the suspicions of a lot of people in the countryside. There have been persistent concerns that the official figures under-estimate the position. They almost certainly continue to do so.

"The political message is that the true scale of the epidemic was larger than anyone recognised at the time and that great care has still to be taken."

Mr Yeo said that the latest figures showed that the Government's decision to instruct local authorities to open footpaths except in three-kilometre cull zones was flawed. Any relaxation was extremely risky.

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