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Was UK prepared for foot and mouth?

    10 September 2005  

  • Sheila Crispin 
    University of Bristol
  • Nick Honhold
    Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Northern Ireland (in personal capacity)
  • Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Northern Ireland (in personal capacity)
  • Hugh Miller
    University of Edinburgh
  • Mike Thrusfield
    University of Edinburgh
  • Nick Taylor
    University of Reading
  • A. Wingfield Edinburgh, UK
    Veterinary surgeon

Your editorial on bird flu states that: "When foot and mouth disease appeared in the UK in 2001, tactics were initially made up ad hoc" (6 August, p 3).

This they were not. They comprised well-established traditional policies, based on the rapid detection and slaughter of animals on infected farms and identification and slaughter or restriction on farms judged to have had contact with these farms, depending on the strength of that contact. These have been the basis of successful epidemic disease control in animals for many decades. However, in 2001 there had been wide dissemination of the disease throughout Great Britain before it was first reported, and it was this delay that was crucial in leading to the scale of the epidemic and the difficulty of bringing it under control.

The editorial continues: "But lack of foresight left the government with only one option, the dreadful slaughter of 6 million animals". The "one option" to which you refer was the product of mathematical modelling during the epidemic, and this was indeed an untested and "ad hoc" approach. It is ironic that it was this very process that resulted in much of the extensive slaughter by instigating the automatic pre-emptive culling of all susceptible livestock on contiguous premises (farms neighbouring infected farms).

Subsequent published analyses of data from the epidemic have shown that this policy was not, as stated at the time, "the only option for controlling the current British epidemic". Indeed, these analyses have vindicated the traditional policies and also demonstrated that the peak of the epidemic had passed before the extensive contiguous culling policies could have taken effect.

You also imply that modelling before an epidemic would lead to planning of a successful ring vaccination strategy. In fact, in the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease epidemic, the same early substantial dissemination rendered effective targeted vaccination hard to implement.

From issue 2516 of New Scientist magazine, 10 September 2005, page 23