Slaughter of the innocents

April 10,, 2001 New Straits Times (Malaysia)  by Sarah Sabaratnam

CLOSE your eyes and imagine the bleating and squealing of one million lambs and piglets scheduled to be put to death with a drug. At least they are going down painlessly.

Not so lucky were some other 500,000-plus farm animals in Britain which were recently culled and then burnt on huge funeral pyres. Authorities have warned that as many as half of Britain's 62 million livestock may be killed to wipe out the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic.

In the Netherlands where at least 10 cases of FMD have been confirmed, 100,000 sheep, cows and pigs have been placed on death row.

Despite these horrifying numbers, authorities in the European Union say this is only the beginning. They're sure the outbreak has yet to reach its peak. This means more animals would be sacrificed in a bid to stop the spread of one of the most difficult livestock diseases to contain.

Why this large-scale destruction of apparently healthy animals? Why are such inhumane methods of stamping out a disease still used in this age of advanced technology?

The answer, it turns out, lies in the economics of it all.

It is difficult to sell animal products unless they come from places certified to be FMD-free. Nations that vaccinate their animals stand to lose their FMD-free status in world markets.

The internationally-agreed criteria clearly states that to achieve a FMD-free status, a country must wait for three months after the last clinical case of a "stamping-out" policy.

"Stamping out" is the slaughter of all affected and susceptible animals on the premises followed by the disposal of carcasses by burial, burning or rendering. The premises must be disinfected and not re-stocked for up to six months. New proposals currently being considered would extend the time period to two years if vaccinated animals were not slaughtered.

So even if Britain chooses to vaccinate its animals now, they will have to be slaughtered later.

The last FMD outbreak in Britain was in the 1960s. Since then, Britain, as well as other EU countries, has been FMD-free.

For Britain to regain its status as a FMD-free country, it has to slaughter all affected, suspected and vulnerable animals in the areas surrounding the disease outbreak. Vaccination is an alternative but has complications of its own.

An animal that is vaccinated is considered to be carrying the disease and so will be rejected in imports.

Prof Joe Brownlie, from the British Department of Pathology and Infectious Diseases at the Royal Veterinary College, told the BBC that vaccination can reduce the impact of the disease but does not prevent infection - this means that the virus can still circulate.

Vaccination can reduce the number of carriers of FMD by reducing the prevalence of virus in the field.

However, vaccinated animals that come into contact with the live virus are just as likely to become carriers as animals which have recovered from the disease.

"It is reported that in Saudi Arabia, in spite of probably the most vigorous vaccination schedule in the world, there have been two outbreaks in three years."

Complications arise because although it is possible to distinguish antibodies from animals that have been infected from those that were vaccinated, the distinction is lost when a vaccinated animal becomes infected.

"This becomes a critical issue for epidemiological surveillance," says Brownlie.

"Any animal with antibodies must thus still be considered as having potentially been infected. Such animals are not acceptable for export to foot-and-mouth disease-free countries."

Other than that, a European Commission study into the costs of vaccination found that it is cheaper in the long term to slaughter rather than to vaccinate.

Thus at present, Britain is ring fencing by slaughtering what could be millions of animals.

There might be hope for future epidemics though. Professor Julian Wimpenny from the Cardiff School of Bio Sciences says that new sophisticated diagnostic techniques may differentiate between vaccinated animals and infected ones.

Another major concern is that the five million doses of suitable vaccine immediately available are insufficient for a general vaccination of all susceptible livestock.

In another development, on March 28, veterinary experts from the European Union approved Britain's request for permission to vaccinate up to 180,000 dairy cattle against FMD to contain the epidemic in the worst- hit areas. Britain's policy is to use vaccination in cases of emergencies.

Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, said Britain has not yet decided whether to resort to vaccinations but it wanted the option "because of the sheer scale of the epidemic which has now infected over 700 farms."

Yet EU governments have resisted calls for a wider immunisation campaign, warning of disastrous consequences for livestock exporters.

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