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Kennedy visits disease-stricken farms

The possibility of bringing foot-and-mouth disease from abroad is very real

By Mark Berry



After a long day inspecting British farms quarantined because of foot-and-mouth disease, Kansas State University's George Kennedy would go back to the hotel with the other veterinarians and hear the stories.

Many farms hit by foot-and-mouth disease in England last year had been in the family for generations. One elderly couple had been dairy farming for 40 years. They went out early one morning to milk the cattle, and found them slobbering and lame. They knew the dreaded disease had come to their farm, and their animals would soon be slaughtered to prevent it from spreading.

"That couple had milked twice a day for 40 years. You can imagine how devastating it was for those people and how devastating it would be here," said Kennedy, a professor in K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine. "Maybe you wake up one morning with a livelihood that you had inherited from your parents and grandparents, and when you go to bed that night there's not one animal on the place. No noises, no sounds."

Kennedy was part of an army of veterinarians from around the world who were called into action when foot-and-mouth hit England in February 2001. Last May, Kennedy arrived in Carlisle, a town in northwest England. All the pigs in the area had been slaughtered because of foot-and-mouth by the time he arrived. Only sheep and cattle remained.

The extremely contagious disease causes blisters in the mouths and top of the hooves in cloven-hoofed animals such as cows, sheep and pigs. It often results in aborted fetuses and death in young animals. If veterinarians found the disease at a farm, its entire herd and even the livestock at farms adjacent to the infected place had to be killed. Every farm in a two-mile circle around the farm would be placed under quarantine.

Kennedy was on one farm where a young man hadn't seen his girlfriend for 10 weeks. He lived on a quarantined farm and the girlfriend lived on a different farm that was also quarantined. Any vehicle coming to a farm had to be sprayed with disinfectant, because milk trucks and feed trucks commonly spread the disease.

More than 4 million animals were slaughtered to curb the epidemic. Kennedy saw convoys of dump trucks, lined and covered in plastic, carrying dead sheep and cattle to mass burial sites. Hotlines were set up to serve people who were contemplating suicide after losing their farms.

One farmer found foot-and-mouth in her livestock and was so distraught that she went to a neighbor so she wouldn't have to see the slaughter of her animals. The next week, the neighbor's farm came down with foot-and-mouth.

"She had changed her clothes and hadn't been with the animals and all that, but it's so contagious, she brought it there, too," Kennedy said.

Humans are unaffected by the disease and Kennedy said it is unlikely to mutate into anything dangerous to people, but the economic consequences are important, even to non-farmers. If livestock producers get shut down, it hurts everything from the feedlots to the grocery stores and restaurants, he said.

"If we were to get foot-and-mouth, the day it's confirmed, we would be unable to export beef, pork and lamb. The entire United States would be shut down for these exports," Kennedy said.

The last U.S. foot-and-mouth incident was in 1929. If the disease could be confined to one region of the country, other regions that prove they are clean would probably be able to reopen, Kennedy said. But the disease would still create enormous problems. All the cattle, sheep and pigs and some dairy products that would have been exported would need to be sold within the United States. This would create an overload of domestic products, meaning prices would drop and markets would crash.

The possibility of bringing foot-and-mouth disease from abroad is very real. A person could easily take an infected sausage, for example, from England and bring it back to the United States on the airplane.

"There are numerous ways we could expose our own cattle and start our own epidemic," Kennedy said. "Many experts believe that it may have already come here, but since we are so urbanized, it never got out into the country farming areas where it could reach the livestock. It's an extremely contagious disease, and for example, if it ever got into a feedlot, probably 100 percent of the animals there would get it."

Kennedy said the danger of such diseases and the importance of stopping them quickly ties in with the food safety and security research building proposed at K-State. The building would be used for researching diseases like E. coli and salmonella, which are found domestically, and could be used for diagnosing foreign diseases like foot-and-mouth.

Spring 2002