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Friday, 13 April, 2001, 05:04 GMT 06:04 UK
Scientists back rapid slaughter policy
Sheep carcasses burning, PA
No alternative this time around, say scientists
New scientific research backs the policy of quickly killing all susceptible animals near a foot-and-mouth outbreak, but warns that nearly two-thirds of them may have to die in the worst affected areas.

The work, carried out by scientists at the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Imperial College in London, predicts that when the current foot-and-mouth epidemic eases, it will have affected between 44 and 64 per cent of the animal population at risk.

There are 45,000 farms in high-risk areas like Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway, and Devon.

The total number of farms in all areas of the UK is 131,000, the report says.

Extensive culling is sadly the only option for controlling the current British epidemic.

Imperial College study
The Imperial College study looked at how the disease has spread so far in the UK.

It says that the faster animals are slaughtered after a case is identified, the faster the disease will be halted.

"Extensive culling is sadly the only option for controlling the current British epidemic, and it is essential that the control measures now in pace be maintained during the long decay phase of the epidemic," say the researchers, who have published their work in the journal Science.

Ring culling

They recommend combining rapid slaughter of infected animals with "ring culling" - the killing of all at risk animals within a 1.5 kilometre (1,640 yard) radius of each infected farm.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (Maff) says that these measures are already official policy, but it admits there are problems putting policy into action.

"Our aim is, as far as is humanly possible, to meet these targets.

"We are killing 100 per cent of infected animals within 30 hours, but we are not doing as well on meeting the 48 hour target for preemptive slaughtering," a Maff spokeswoman told BBC News Online.

"We are training up more slaughtermen and working closely with the army, stepping up in every area to try and improve the situation," she said, adding that efforts were being concentrated in areas of particular concern.

"Aggressive policies"

The Imperial College researchers warn that short delays in slaughter lead to much higher infectivity.

"Maximum benefits are only gained by aggressive policies that reduce transmission below the critical level required for the epidemic to be self-sustaining.

"Clear communication of this basic epidemiological principle is key."

Progress made in late March towards speeding up slaughter has slowed the epidemic, but without rapid and effective ring culling, the epidemic will grow, they say.

Next time around

The study goes on to call for an international review of policy on foot-and-mouth. It proposes:

  • working out how to stop foot-and-mouth re-entering the country from infected countries,
  • developing a reliable test to distinguish infected animals from vaccinated ones,
  • analysing the costs and benefits of vaccination instead of slaughter in infrequent outbreaks, and
  • finding ways of minimising delays between disease reporting and slaughter.
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