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Thursday, 4 October, 2001, 08:36 GMT 09:36 UK
Cull delay 'worsened epidemic'
Pyre PA
Expert advice was not immediately followed up
The foot-and-mouth crisis in the UK would now be over had a more aggressive culling programme been implemented earlier in the crisis.

Had the policy been implemented from April, we believe case numbers would have been reduced by at least 20% overall

Prof Neil Ferguson, Imperial College
That is the conclusion of two detailed scientific assessments of the epidemic published in the leading journals Nature and Science.

Researchers from Imperial College, London, believe that "at least a million" fewer animals would need to have been slaughtered had ministry officials acted sooner on expert advice.

Since February this year, more than 3.8 million animals have been slaughtered - and one or two cases are still being confirmed every week.

The new studies suggest a more robust approach early on would now have brought the foot-and-mouth crisis to a complete end.

Sheep PA
Fewer animals would need to have been slaughtered
Professor Roy Anderson, one of the government's chief advisers, said tension between Ministry of Agriculture (Maff) vets and independent advisers had delayed the adoption of an aggressive culling policy.

This tension came to a head in March when mathematical models indicated the best way to stamp out the epidemic. This policy of so-called contiguous culling involved killing all animals on infected farms within 24 hours, and those on adjacent farms within 48 hours.

However, the advice was not fully followed for several weeks.

Scientific advice

Professor Anderson said vets resisted the policy, believing it to be too rigid and draconian - and, he claimed, basing their stance on personal opinion rather than hard scientific assessment.

He added: "The whole basis of the policy depends on speed of action and efficiency of action and therefore delays in making those decisions about which premises to remove - giving discretion to the local vets - was not ideal."

One of the new studies' lead authors, Imperial's Professor Neil Ferguson, told the BBC: "Had the policy been implemented from April, we believe case numbers would have been reduced by at least 20% overall, and the number of farms culled over the duration of the epidemic by approximately a third."

There were farmers taking injunctions out against the cull of contiguous premises [and] that slowed down the cull process enormously

Professor David King
Chief Scientific Adviser
Professor Anderson said it was important that Maff's successor - the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) - took more outside scientific advice.

But the government's chief scientific adviser, Professor David King, insisted the government had actively sought and always listened to independent advice.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We brought the epidemic under control towards the end of April, perhaps even earlier than that.

"We have to recognise that a degree of complacency crept in not only amongst vets but the public and farmers. There were farmers taking injunctions out against the cull of contiguous premises. That slowed down the cull process enormously."

Inefficient running

He conceded: "There was a period when the implementation of the policy was not being achieved. It was not as efficiently run [as it should have been]."

Professor King added: "It could be over by Christmas; it could be over before Christmas."

Meanwhile, additional work undertaken at Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities, and at Defra, throws light on the controversial issue of vaccination.

It concludes that vaccinating livestock - a strategy urged by some at the height of the crisis but consistently rejected by the government - would have had little impact on the spread of the disease.

Had immunisation been carried out from the start, together with all the culling measures, the number of cases would only have been reduced by between 15 and 20%, believes Dr Matt Keeling and colleagues.

"In the more likely scenario in which we vaccinated during the tail of the epidemic from May onwards, we found there would only have been a small - possibly one or 2% - decrease in the number of cases," Dr Keeling told the BBC.

"So, although in some respects vaccination from early on would have been a good policy, it looks as if you could actually better results by just implementing the culling procedure more rapidly and more stringently from earlier on."

The BBC's Sue Nelson
"Some scientists believe vets contributed to the delay"
UK government chief scientist Professor David King
"A degree of complacency crept in not only amongst vets but the public and farmers"
Prof Neil Ferguson
Biosecurity measures are important from the outset
See also:

07 Sep 01 | Glasgow 2001
International 'vaccine debate needed'
04 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Farm disease - 2,000 and counting
03 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Foot-and-mouth vaccine 'little help'
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