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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 16:57 GMT 17:57 UK
Farm disease - 2,000 and counting
Man on fells PA
The empty fells: Much of northern England is clear of farm stock
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

In early May the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said the foot-and-mouth epidemic was being brought under control.

Disease statistics
Cases so far: 2,000
Animals slaughtered: 3,802,000
Awaiting slaughter: 19,000
"We are on the home straight", he said, shortly before announcing the date of the postponed general election.

Four months on, though, the epidemic has reached a milestone - its two-thousandth case.

Mr Blair's home straight is proving a long and winding road, with no end yet in sight.

Disputed policy

Government scientists now say the outbreak could last at least until the New Year. One epidemiologist says it is unsafe to give any date for it to end.


I think what we're seeing is the tail of the outbreak, and it's being prolonged not by movements of animals, but of people

David Tyson, BVA president
The government's critics say it is time to start vaccinating animals against the disease.

Some argue that vaccination should completely replace the policy of slaughtering all infected and suspect animals, though more say it should be used to supplement the slaughter policy.

The government's chief scientific adviser, Professor David King, heads an interdepartmental scientific committee on foot-and-mouth.

Vaccine problems

It is reported to have been "drawing up secret plans to vaccinate animals" to try to stop a fresh outbreak when sheep are shortly moved down from the hills to lowland farms for the winter.

Slaughter trucks in convoy PA
Slaughtered animals are driven away
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told BBC News Online the reports were "misleading".

He said: "Vaccination was always an option, and it remains an option. It is being considered, but no more urgently than at any earlier stage."

Dr Tony Wilsmore, of the department of agriculture at the University of Reading, told BBC News Online he thought the government's mass slaughter policy, though unpopular, was right.

'Pretty horrific'

He said: "If there were a good vaccine, then I'd say go for it by all means. But the vaccine that's available isn't all that good.

"It doesn't necessarily stop animals being infected: it stops them showing symptoms of infection. And vaccinated animals can still excrete the virus.

"In Saudi Arabia they have very large dairy herds, which they vaccinate against foot-and-mouth as often as every 70 days. And they still get breakdowns.

"The humane aspects of the slaughter policy are pretty horrific. But if you want to restore the export trade, that's the quickest route."

Reluctant support

The Conservative agriculture spokesman, Tim Yeo MP, has often criticised government handling of the disease. But he too doubts that vaccination could help much.

Mr Yeo told BBC News Online: "I am a de facto reluctant supporter of the government's slaughter policy.

Workers spray vehicle with disinfectant AFP
Anti-virus measures are intensive
"A lot of the problem with stamping out the disease was caused by its slow initial reaction. That let the virus spread much further than it should have done in those early weeks.

"But there's a lot of confusion in people's minds about what vaccination could actually achieve.

"I know the export trade we want to resume is worth much less than the rest of the rural economy, which has been so badly damaged. But the only way to save the countryside is to end foot-and-mouth.

"Mass slaughter is the right policy. It just wasn't pursued properly. But now we've started on it, we must go on till the battle is won."

Spread by people

David Tyson, the president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), told BBC News Online: "Our thinking hasn't changed.

"We haven't found a scenario where vaccination would help to speed the end of the outbreak.

"The Dutch used it, but that was because they couldn't dispose of the carcasses fast enough. It was a way of managing the slaughter, not the disease.

"I think what we're seeing is the tail of the outbreak, and it's being prolonged not by movements of animals, but of people."

See also:

03 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Foot-and-mouth vaccine 'little help'
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