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Thursday, 12 April, 2001, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
Foot-and-mouth: Former vet Keith Baker quizzed

With the Easter school holidays under way, the British tourist industry would normally be facing one of the busiest times of the year.

Yet people are staying away from the countryside because of the disease.

Thousands of animals are being culled because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak and both farming and tourism are in crisis.

The official number of confirmed cases across the UK stands at 1,165 on Monday 9 April and it is feared that the number of cases of foot-and-mouth will exceed those in 1967.

Is the government succeeding in controlling the disease? What else can be done? Would vaccination have worked? How long will it take before the countryside can get back to normal?

Keith Baker, former president of the British Veterinary Association, joined us for a forum and answered your foot-and-month concerns. He qualified from the Royal Veterinary College in 1960 and had considerable experience of the outbreak in 1967.

To listen to coverage of the forum, select the link below:


Highlights of interview:

Chris Daniel, Aberdeenshire, Scotland:

How much is actually known about the virus? - The general impression given is that nobody seems to know much about it and we are seeing a number of knee jerk reactions and shooting in the dark - is that true?

Keith Baker:

No it is not. There is a tremendous amount known about the foot-and-mouth virus. We are fortunate in this country in that we have the international World Reference Laboratory at Purbright.


So is it fair to say the reactions have been knee-jerk in terms of the response to the disease as it does seem as if the policy keeps changing?

Keith Baker:

No, the response to a foot-and-mouth outbreak would depend on how it develops. The difficulty with this particular outbreak was that before anybody knew that we had the disease it had been moved all the way around country.

Steve Russell, Lockerbie, Scotland:

I am employed as part of a disinfection team, spraying all plant and people entering or leaving uninfected farms as part of the cull program. I would like to know if there has been research carried out as to how effective this kind of disinfection is? What are the consequences of releasing such vast quantities of iodine and citric acid into the environment?

Keith Baker:

The Ministry of Agriculture has published on its website a list of the approved disinfectants that are known to be effective against foot-and-mouth disease and they have all been tested at the dilutions that are quoted in the document on the website. As far as citric acid is concerned, it is an organic acid and it will be broken down quite readily.

In terms of the other disinfectants, the important issue there is to make sure that you use them where they won't run off into watercourses etc.

Jill Carss, Calgary, Canada:

I'm getting married next month and my family will be coming over from the UK. What precautions are required to help keep foot-and-mouth from coming into Canada?

Keith Baker:

The obvious answer there is that one of the things they shouldn't do is to go onto a farm and certainly a farm in any of the problem areas within ten days of going abroad. But if they use clothes that have been through the normal washing process or have been dry-cleaned and they make sure their shoes are clean then there shouldn't be a problem and of course the Canadian officials will make sure that they don't take in any animal or vegetable material with them.

Richard Ellis, Brisbane Australia:

I wondered if the British Government had ever thought of using zinc supplements to combat foot-and-mouth disease in animals. It might put the brakes on the epidemic. Scientific work done 25 years ago, shows that zinc interferes with the breakdown of the proteins that cause the disease.

Keith Baker:

This is not something I am familiar with but I have heard all sorts of theories put forward as to the way that things might be done and we have had lots of suggestions from virtually all around the world.

Obviously zinc is an important factor in the well-being of the skin but I am not aware that it has a direct effect on the virus and it is the virus that damages the skin tissues.

John Horton, Detroit, Michigan, USA:

Why was cattle, lamb, and even chicken feed formulated with the remains of similar animals? Mad cow disease is a more important problem than foot-and-mouth which is understood better, would not you agree?


It is important here to make the distinction to people from overseas that we are talking about very different types of diseases here are we not?

Keith Baker:

We are talking about a totally different form of disease. Foot-and-mouth is a typical virus disease - it is one of the most infectious ones that we know. But in terms of using protein in rations for livestock - I looked at this many years ago and the practice goes back long before I was born and so it something that has been taking place over many, many years - and until you come up with a new disease like BSE - then you don't appreciate that there is likely to be a problem.


Now that we know about BSE though, isn't it reasonable to say that world wide we really ought to be very wary about using these protein at all?

Keith Baker:

The problem with BSE was meat and bone meal. The probable cause of this particular outbreak was catering waste and what has to be remembered is that catering waste comes from materials that have been passed as fit for human consumption and then if they are properly processed they shouldn't create a risk.


I should add for information that there is now a proposal from the British Government to ban the use of pig swill.

Mark Hughes, New Zealand:

Is this latest outbreak a direct result of the intensive farming techniques being employed by farmers? (e.g. overcrowding, no natural sunlight, etc).

Keith Baker:

No it is not. In fact, intensive farming has nothing to do with the spread of the disease. The spread of the disease and the dissemination around the country was mostly due to the movement of sheep and unfortunately they went through a market before the disease was discovered on the original pig premises and by the time the disease was found, the sheep had gone the length and breadth of the country.

Suzan Sedgwick, Sedbergh, England:

If foot-and- mouth is supposed to die when the animals are killed as they say, then why can it be carried and brought into this country through meat from other countries?

Keith Baker:

I can't answer which particular meat it came in from but she is quite right in that the virus in muscle will be killed by the changes that take place after death - as long as the muscle is matured, the acidity in the muscle will kill off the virus. What it won't do is change the acidity in bone marrow or in some of the lymph nodes and so there is a risk in meat. But as far as the carcasses are concerned - they are not cut up for meat - they are destroyed as they are and therefore the virus will have been killed by the changes that take place after death and of course the outside of the carcasses are all sprayed with disinfectant as well.

Diane Sands, Port Charlotte, USA:

It has been said that disease is so contagious that it could be carried into an area on the "antenna of a car". What is being done to prevent the wild creatures from spreading the disease?

Keith Baker:

It is more likely to be carried on the tyres of a car but however it is carried, it has got to be able to get into contact with a susceptible animal. So it has got to get in touch with any cloven-footed animal. I am not aware that the antennae of a car is a particular problem - it has got to really be something on the ground that the animals can get in touch with.


What about the question of wild animals - e.g. deer and other animal in the wild? There hasn't so far been a proposal for any sort of mass cull of wild creatures and of course that would be extremely controversial. Is there a risk that even if you get rid of the susceptible livestock that it could still be harboured in wildlife?

Keith Baker:

A cull of wildlife would be extremely difficult and of course deer are susceptible to the disease. But if you went out into the wild and tried to cull deer you would probably spread them far further than they would normally go in their normal course of activities. So the decision has been made that you leave them as undisturbed as possible so that they don't, if they by chance pick up the infection, spread it far and wide.

Peter Best, Gloucester, UK:

Were the Ministry of Agriculture too slow in seeking help from outside agencies during recent weeks? Were any of the recommendations of the report into the 1967 outbreak implemented within the first 48-96 hours of the first case being identified, and if so which part(s) of the 1967 report were swiftly actioned?

Keith Baker:

As far foot-and-mouth is concerned, you respond as fast as you can and until you know the extent of your problems it is very difficult to decide how many staff and how many people you need to deal with the outbreak. In fact the numbers in any state veterinary service around the world would be totally inadequate to cope with a situation that we have got here. But the numbers of veterinary surgeons has gone up phenomenally to somewhere over 1,400 and it is important to make best use of these people.

Sue Willoughby, Chard, Somerset:

What concerns me is the length of time that the foot-and-mouth virus can remain active. Can this virus lie dormant just waiting for a passing host? If this is the case what about wildlife rabbits, foxes etc; is it possible that they could be carrying the virus?

Keith Baker:

The virus will survive if it protected in dung etc. This is one of the reasons why once you have killed the animals, you cleanse and disinfect the premises and you leave them empty for a while. But the virus itself is very susceptible to sunlight so hopefully if the weather improves this will be a natural aid to killing the virus in the environment.

Hilary Bidmead, Dumfries, Scotland:

Wouldn't you expect the disease to be flattening out by now with the Ministry of Agriculture killing all animals around the outbreaks?

Keith Baker:

If you read what the Government's chief scientist said yesterday - he believes that it is flattening out. But you can't rely on the results for one day. What one needs to do is to see the results over a period of say a week and I think the evidence of the last week does tend to suggest that things are flattening out. But what I hoped to see soon is not just a flattening out but a diminution in the number of daily outbreaks.

Simon Adams, London, UK:

Any child knows that Cows eat grass. In turning the farm of living creatures into the food factory, have we not maybe lost touch with reality and therefore deserve whatever plagues may come?

Keith Baker:

If you think that the basic problem is in sheep, the majority of sheep are fed a very natural ration - they are the ones that graze the hillsides and are normally fed on straw and hay and it is very few of them that will get a concentrated ration.

I think the difference between this particular outbreak and 1967/68 is that you have now got fewer but larger farms - what you have therefore got is a bigger basis on which the virus can multiple and that is one of the problems.

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