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UK's FMD Outbreak Traced To Research Labs

Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) reared its ugly head this week in the United Kingdom (UK), six years after it devastated the country's livestock industries and caused $13 billion in damage.

Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) reared its ugly head this week in the United Kingdom (UK), six years after it devastated the country's livestock industries and caused $13 billion in damage. But the current outbreak comes with a twist -- the disease leaked out from labs developing FMD vaccines.

The first report of FMD came Aug. 2 from a farm just a few miles down the road from the research laboratories in Surrey, southern England. The lab site houses the government's Institute of Animal Health and a commercial lab for Merial Animal Health. Merial was commissioned by the European Union to develop an FMD vaccine based on the virus that devastated the UK economy in 1967.

Upon notification of the first outbreak, the UK government immediately set up a 3-km protection zone and a10-km surveillance area while forbidding movement of all susceptible animals in the UK. A second farm within the surveillance area was found to also have contracted the disease and animals on both farms were culled.

The restriction on animal movement was lifted late Wednesday by the UK's chief veterinary officer Debby Reynolds. She said there was a low but not negligible risk the disease might spread from the surveillance zone to the rest of the country, but controlled movement of livestock outside these areas presented a low risk if everyone adhered to the strict conditions set out, including tough biosecurity measures at slaughterhouses.

Reynolds also ruled out -- for the time being at least -- vaccination as a tactic in stemming the FMD outbreak. Her office is under pressure from animal-welfare interests concerned about animal suffering and destruction.

As of yesterday, a third suspected farm was thought to have also contracted the disease but the first test results came back negative on Friday. Officials were awaiting secondary tests. The third farm is outside the surveillance zone but a smaller, 3-km surveillance area has been erected around it.

Exports of livestock and related meat products from the UK to the European Union (EU) have been banned and EU veterinary experts agreed on Wednesday to uphold the ban until Aug. 25. Meat from Northern Ireland is exempt from the ban and can be transported through the UK if security measures are adhered to. EU vets will again assess the situation on Aug. 23 and may rule to lift the trade ban if the FMD situation in the UK has been resolved.

The UK's Meat and Livestock Commission estimates bans related to the FMD outbreak will cost $20 million/week in lost exports. The U.S., the Philippines, South Korea, South Africa and Japan have all banned imports of UK meat products, bans that could last months or longer.

FMD is a viral disease that attacks animals with cloven hooves, such as cattle, sheep, and swine. It's characterized by fever and blister-like lesions followed by erosions on the tongue and lips, in the mouth, on the teats, and between the hooves. While many affected animals do recover, the disease results in a weakened state, loss of weight, and reduced production of milk and meat. The disease is virtually never harmful to humans, points out USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) but is highly contagious among animals vulnerable to the virus.

For more on APHIS' emergency response plan, visit: