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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 August 2007, 22:46 GMT 23:46 UK
Foot-and-mouth's lessons learned
By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

No entry sign in Surrey
A surveillance zone still surrounds the two affected UK farms
In 2001 foot-and-mouth became a national epidemic. It lasted for seven months. Six million animals were slaughtered and it cost the country 8bn.

But this time an outbreak on 2 August was contained and eliminated within weeks. So how did the government get it so right this time when it got it so wrong six years ago?

It was a combination of luck, professionalism and a quick response.

We were lucky that the first outbreak of the disease was identified straight away. If left for even a few more days the virus could easily have spread further.

Movement halted

The farmer whose cattle were affected, Roger Pride, showed great professionalism in identifying the disease among his herd and then reporting it so quickly.

Once it was identified by the farmer, this was an easy one for the government to handle

Maff (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, now Defra), then acted quickly to cordon off the area, halt the movement of animals and identify the source of the virus.

In 2001 the government was too slow to ban the movement of animals and the virus spread across the country.

More time was wasted as government scientists and vets squabbled among themselves about the most effective response before eventually agreeing on the need for killing all animals on affected farms and those immediately adjacent.

To compound the problem, Maff closed all footpaths - effectively shutting the countryside to tourists. This had no effect in controlling the spread of the virus but proved to be yet another blow to the rural economy.

After this disaster, the government commissioned Dr Iain Anderson to assess the lessons learned from the epidemic.

His report was diplomatic in tone, but the subtext was that the government's response in 2001 was an object lesson on how not to handle the spread of an infectious animal disease in the future.

Emerging from the Anderson report was the current contingency plan, which set clear measures to be adopted and a clear chain of command. Although the prime minister has taken close personal control of the outbreak, it was the government's chief vet, Dr Debby Reynolds, who implemented the contingency plan.

Police officers in Surrey
The big questions still remain unanswered

It was her insistence on sticking to the plan and being led by the science that won the confidence of the farming community.

Unlike in 2001, there was widespread support among farmers and the ban on moving susceptible animals was adhered to.

It helped greatly that the probable source was quickly identified by Defra as the Pirbright complex, where stocks of the virus were held. That enabled Dr Reynolds to relax the movement ban within a few days.

On 9 August she allowed farmers to take their animals directly to slaughter, provided certain safeguards were followed.

That was a big call by Dr Reynolds.

The National Farmers' Union estimated that the industry was losing 1.8m a day because of the movement ban. So the easing of restrictions came as a much needed relief.

But if the outbreak had spread outside the Surrey exclusion zone as a result of the relaxation, the move would have backfired.

Export ban

Dr Reynolds felt that, because animals were being sent direct to slaughterhouses under carefully controlled conditions, the risk of the virus spreading to more farms was very low. An assessment that was shown to be spot on.

The European Union lifted its export ban within two weeks of the last confirmed outbreak.

That was the earliest the EU could have lifted its ban and suggests that officials are satisfied with the way in which the government handled the crisis.

As far as outbreaks go, once it was identified by the farmer, this was an easy one for the government to handle. That said, by and large, Defra, led by Dr Reynolds, acted quickly and effectively to manage the outbreak.

But despite the rapid end to the crisis, foot-and-mouth is estimated to have cost the farming industry 36m.

And the big questions still remain unanswered. How did the virus escape from the Pirbright complex? And how can we be sure it won't happen again?


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