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Last Updated: Monday, 6 August 2007, 20:32 GMT 21:32 UK
Q&A: Foot-and-mouth experts
Foot-and-mouth pyre in 2001
Thousands lost their livelihoods during the 2001 outbreak
Following the discovery of foot-and-mouth disease at a Surrey farm, microbiologist Professor Hugh Pennington of Aberdeen University and Anthony Gibson, the National Farmers' Union's director of communications, help to explain the implications of the outbreak.

What is foot-and-mouth disease?

Foot-and-mouth disease is a virus which affects animals - very few human cases have ever been recorded.

It is endemic in animals in many parts of the world including Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America.

The disease affects cloven-hoofed animals, in particular cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and deer.

There are seven different types of the disease and infected animals suffer a fever and blisters mainly located in the mouth and on the feet.

How does the disease spread?

Livestock can pick up the virus by direct contact with an infected animal or by contact with foodstuffs.

Airborne spread of the disease is also known to have taken place and the movement of animals, persons and vehicles can also have an impact.

Mr Pennington said: "The worst case scenario is that the virus can blow on the wind. The virus can travel quite long distances. Normally it doesn't do that.

"In 2001 it didn't spread very much on the wind and it was more animal movement that was the cause, and animal movement is still a very important aspect.

"So it can either be animal movement or it can spread in more subtle ways, and that's of course why we take it very seriously and that's why there really has to be draconian measures to nip an outbreak in the bud."

Can humans contract the disease?

The virus crosses the species barrier to humans with very great difficulty. The last human case in the UK occurred in 1966.

Diseased animals have no effect on the human food chain, the Food Standards Agency says.

How can the government contain the disease?

There is no cure for the disease and once a case of foot-and-mouth is confirmed in the UK, movement restrictions are put in place to help prevent the disease from spreading.

Officials set up a 3km (1.8m) protection zone and a surveillance zone with a minimum radius of 10km (6.2m).

Professor Hugh Pennington
Professor Pennington says the UK is better prepared than in 2001

In the protection zone, the movement of animals, animal products, feed and bedding are prohibited, unless a special licence is obtained.

A ban on movement across a wider area may also be introduced.

In both the protection and surveillance zones, there are increased levels of biosecurity on farms, with disinfectant used on footwear, clothing and vehicles.

Infected and other susceptible animals are valued and slaughtered and export health certificates for animals and animal products can be withdrawn.

Why is stopping animal movements so crucial?

Mr Pennington said: "One of the causes of 2001 outbreak being so widespread is that there was a lot of movement of animals who were already incubating the disease.

"Stopping animal movements is basically cutting off one route that the virus uses to get about in the country and feed itself into places distant from where the outbreak started.

"It is an imported virus, it doesn't occur here naturally."

Is vaccinating livestock the answer?

Mr Pennington said: "It's not that there isn't necessarily vaccine capability here, we may not have the right strain and then there's the question, well which animals do you vaccinate?

"There are other aspects of vaccination of course which have to be taken into account.

"If it's a very small outbreak it's not an issue. If it's a bigger outbreak if it shows signs of spreading - that's when the vaccination argument will come into play and that's when vaccination itself may come into play."

Mr Gibson said the aim should be a "once in a lifetime" vaccination but said the UK was "some way away from that".

He added that as long as foot-and-mouth was present in countries from which Britain imported meat, there would be a risk of bringing the disease into the country.

Are we prepared for an outbreak?

Mr Pennington said: "We're better prepared than we were in 2001. We have very, very good systems now for tracking the virus, for rapid diagnosis.

"There were problems in 2001 largely because the disease had got going on quite a large scale before anyone realised there was an outbreak.

People want to know what is happening, whether it is good, bad or indifferent
Anthony Gibson
National Farmers' Union

"We'll be able to cope much better because we have the infrastructure there which has been tried and tested in terms of the virology, in terms of the animal health and in terms of all the administration needed to stop animal movements."

Mr Gibson said the government seemed to have learned "most of the important lessons" from the 2001 outbreak.

Crucially, he said, it had improved communication and the provision of information.

"People want to know what is happening, whether it is good, bad or indifferent," he added.

Why did the 2001 outbreak have such a devastating impact on farming?

By the end of the 2001 outbreak, about seven million animals had been slaughtered and many farms and rural businesses had been ruined.

The crisis is estimated to have cost the country up to 8bn.

Ministers were criticised for failing to prepare properly for an outbreak on such a large scale and for not halting the spread of the disease quickly enough.

What will be the economic effect on the farming industry this time?

The cost to the countryside of the ban on livestock movement and other agricultural events will "certainly be millions", Mr Gibson said.

Can farmers claim compensation for their culled animals?

Under statute farmers can claim for their culled livestock, a spokesman from Defra said.

The Animal Health Act 1981 states that they can claim compensation for every animal affected by foot-and-mouth disease.

They will be compensated for the animal's value immediately before its slaughter.

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