Farms vulnerable to diseases warning

Britain's farms are vulnerable to a wide range of tropical diseases as well as to the return of foot-and-mouth, MPs were warned today.
Globalisation has vastly increased the danger from viruses previously unknown in the UK, said the chairman of the Royal Society inquiry into livestock infections, commissioned by the government after last year`s foot-and-mouth epidemic.

The government should draw up ``rules of engagement`` now for outbreaks of each potential disease, so there is no repeat of the furious arguments seen last year over whether culling or vaccination should be used to beat foot-and-mouth, said Prof Sir Brian Follett.

The contingency plan for dealing with a recurrence of foot-and-mouth should include emergency vaccination as a ``tool of first resort`` alongside the culling of animals directly affected, the Commons Rural Affairs Committee heard.

Prof Follett said he was ``not sanguine`` about the prospect of Britain being adequately prepared for future outbreaks of serious animal diseases.

Increased movement of meat and animals around the world meant foot-and-mouth outbreaks were more likely to come more frequently than they did during the 20th century, while previously ``exotic`` viruses were becoming established in Europe.

He told the MPs: ``These diseases are around. There is evidence that they are moving - some of them - closer to us.

``We can be fairly certain the risk is out there - whether it has gone up or down 5% is in the detail. It is out there and we need a package of measures that will hold the whole thing down.

``Any idea that we can solve it with just culling or just emergency vaccination seems to me to miss the point.``

Classical swine fever, which is not native to Europe, had entered the German wild boar population and was regularly infecting farm pigs there, while the ``particularly nasty`` disease blue tongue had crossed over from Africa to infect sheep in southern Europe.

``It seems to me that we have, as a society, to come up with a resolution for rules of engagement and those rules must surely be established before outbreaks occur. You can`t have these debates during an outbreak,`` said Prof Follett.

Practical difficulties with emergency vaccination for foot-and-mouth should be overcome within the next 18-24 months, the MPs heard.

Within the next few weeks, Margaret Beckett`s Rural Affairs Department will announce its response to the inquiry team`s report into infectious diseases in livestock, which was published in July.