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Foot and Mouth again: Will Gordon Brown rise to the occasion?

Sent to warmwell August 23 2007 by Roger Breeze

Watching from afar the public debate after the escape of foot and mouth virus from Pirbright or Merial, the opening words of the greatest country music song ever written kept running through my mind: "He said I"ll love you 'til I die She told him you'll forget in time..."

Just 6 years ago the British public underwrote the costs of the most expensive foot and mouth control campaign in the country's history and through those long dark weeks and months I am sure that behind closed doors the laboratory staff at Pirbright worked themselves to exhaustion every day in the nation's service.

That others did not exploit the results of their labors to the fullest was not unexpected - that is what happens in Britain when lions are led by donkeys. But looking back, as Winston Churchill might have said, never in the field of animal disease control was so much owed by so many to so few. And among the many must be counted all those whose livelihood is derived from British livestock and the countryside.

One might naïvely have expected that since 2001 the many would have pressed for increased government resources so that Pirbright could lead efforts to make sure such a debacle never occurred again. And critical to those increased resources should have been a wholly-new Biological safety level 3 and 4 laboratory and animal facility that could serve for the next 50 years as the core of a renewed national commitment to protect animal and human health in a world and century when dangerous old and new diseases are no longer held in check by time and simple geography.

But if you don't expect anything you are never disappointed, so it was with a sense of sadness at the predictability of human behavior and the shortness of modern memory, not disappointment, that I have heard those who should have known much, much better question whether either the laboratory or the vaccine plant were needed anymore in today's world. To those I would simply say - if you think an epidemic animal disease outbreak is expensive with good scientific resources, try living without, like Africa and the rest of the world that is dark at night.

However, as the former Director of the Plum Island Lab, the US equivalent of Pirbright, I also know well that faced with the choice between investing in defenses against an animal disease problem that is immediate and certain or one that is far off and uncertain, self-interest compels most to go for the threat closest at hand.
Sadly, the livestock industry trade groups that have the loudest voices are particularly susceptible to prioritizing such diseases of the month.

Unfortunately, the world's most dangerous livestock diseases fall into the second far off category and so the long and arduous efforts to build defenses cannot be sustained by popular interest and clamor among the very groups they are designed to protect. They must be built and sustained by vision and leadership - and over the generations.

Compounding the problems of showing the daily relevance and importance of Pirbright and Plum Island in a cacophony of other competing governmental budgetary demands is the parochial nature of the mission set for these labs by their political masters. They exist to provide an insurance policy that should a dangerous animal disease strike, the country would have the scientific resources to support diagnosis and control by vaccination or other means.

Now insurance is a great thing and not to be despised - particularly if you should ever need it. But the underlying question about the value of insurance was best expressed by a former Governor of Texas, who was very proud that earlier in life he had been an insurance salesman.

Offering the US or British public an insurance policy that the lab would be there to help recover from the damage only after the nation had already suffered a catastrophic societal and economic loss has never seemed much of a bargain to me - unless your aim is to live in Florida.

So let's set a new mission for a Pirbright (and a Plum Island) of the future, with decent funding, a new facility and talented staff who have some assurance their work is valued. Let's protect the UK, US and everyone else - permanently - by eliminating foot and mouth as a threat to domestic livestock globally. We can control foot and mouth and the other major transboundary livestock disease threats in our lifetimes. No new technology is needed - just the vision, the will and the resources. What British agriculture and all those who care about rural communities should understand is that there is no mysterious "they" who are going to remove the threat of accidental or deliberate introduction of foot and mouth disease sometime in the future. Only a few labs, and nations that you can count on one hand, are ever likely to contribute to such an effort, so if we don't do this no one else will - and Britain, like North America, the EU, Australia and New Zealand will continue to live in fear.

The tragedy of foot and mouth is not played out in the glare of publicity every few years in Surrey or the UK's green fields, as sorry as we are for damage inflicted on our farmers and communities. The real anguish is felt mutely and without notice every day by poor farmers who are among the millions scratching desperately to survive with a few sheep, goats and cattle on marginal lands one step from becoming desert. For them foot and mouth means a life without animals and descent into abject poverty with a family that will go hungry, starve and even die.

The only way to remove the threat of foot and mouth to the developed world is to remove it as a problem for livestock and poor people in the developing world.

Like the good citizens of Gotham, we cannot build a wall high enough to keep disease out - we have to get rid of it where it lurks. This is a mission worthy of the proud heritage of Pirbright, Plum Island, Vladimir, Reims and Ondersterpoort. Now is the opportunity for Britain to set a new global agenda under a new administration. So will you and your many readers join me in asking the Prime Minister not to live with the threat of foot and mouth disease like all his predecessors, but to chart a bold new course and lead the international effort to get rid of this threat once and for all?

Roger Breeze BVMS, PhD, MRCVS, CEO Centaur Science Group, a science consulting forum, Washington DC, USA, Formerly Director, Plum Island USA Department of Agriculture.
































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