'Nightmare scenario' for farmers: New foot and mouth epidemic threatens as virus will remain hidden in sheep

'Nightmare scenario' for farmers:
New foot and mouth epidemic threatens as virus will remain hidden in sheep

June 10, 2001, The Observer by Paul Harris and Anthony Browne

SCIENTISTS have warned of a 'nightmare scenario' that will leave the countryside in crisis for the rest of the year as cases of foot and mouth disease continue to break out, threatening a fresh epidemic.

The predictions, which will horrify farmers and tourism industry chiefs, cast doubt on the initial Government forecast that there would be no new cases by the end of the summer. They were made as the new Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (formerly the Ministry of Agriculture) announced a suspected outbreak on a farm in an area previously untouched by the disease. Almost 100 animals were slaughtered near Bridgwater in Somerset after suspicious symptoms were spotted.

The long-term threat has emerged from hidden reservoirs of the virus in sheep that could still be spreading the disease next year, in spite of a slaughter programme that has already killed 3.2 million animals.

Blood testing has begun on some sheep to see whether they have been exposed to the virus but gone undetected. If large numbers of previously unsuspected sheep are found to have been exposed, the epidemic could have a 'long tail' lasting beyond Christmas.

'If we find a lot, it could go on until at least the end of the year in sporadic cases,' said Dr Tony Andrews, an adviser to the National Farmers' Union.

A senior veterinary source close to the Government's foot and mouth operation told The Observer that preliminary blood tests on flocks have begun in Essex and have uncovered evidence of the virus in areas where it was not expected. 'They are throwing up new cases where we did not expect them,' he said.

The source said that if large amounts of the virus were detected, it could take up to 24 months to complete the testing programme. Only then could Britain declare itself free of foot and mouth, which could delay the farming industry's attempts to resume exports for years.

The strain of foot and mouth that has hit Britain is unusually difficult to detect in sheep, as they often display only mild signs which can disappear before they are spotted. Sheep are more difficult to monitor for the disease than cattle or pigs, because they are kept unattended on expanses of moorland.

Recent sporadic outbreaks of foot and mouth have been blamed on sheep carrying the disease, and then infecting cattle when the herds were put out to summer pasture.

Experts have warned that more outbreaks in areas previously thought to be free of infection are likely. A major one has already occurred around Settle in North Yorkshire and a smaller one has hit farms in Cheshire.

'We are not out of this yet. Settle is a classic example. It was thought to be low-risk and then, wallop,' said Dick Sibley, president of the British Cattle Veterinary Association.

Sibley said that if new outbreaks were to occur in areas of the country where stock density was high, such as west Wales or Devon and Cornwall, the new outbreaks would be difficult to contain and represent a 'nightmare' scenario.

Scientists called on farmers to abide by movement restrictions and not to let up on their use of disinfectant mats and other precautions.

'A big worry is that farmers tend to relax their guard. We still have to do everything we can to stop it spreading,' said Andrews.

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