The worst seems to be over for South Korean livestock producers as the latest foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak appears to have peaked in the wake of a second round of vaccines. The epidemic forced South Korean officials to slaughter nearly a third of the country’s hog and cattle herds. Damages caused by the outbreak are expected to hover around $2.6 billion.

The Chosun Ilbo reports that the South Korean Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries announced an improvement in slaughter totals for animals culled to stop the spread of FMD, an indication of success in eradication of the disease. The decrease in daily cull numbers appears to be a result of the second wave of a vaccination campaign, the agency says . Nearly 74% of hogs and 99% of cattle had been vaccinated by Feb. 21.

Nearly 74% of hogs and 99% of cattle had been vaccinated by Feb. 21.

"We're cautiously predicting that FMD will abate early next month once vaccination is completed late this month,” Yoo Jeong-bok, the country’s farm minister, told The Chosun Ilbo.

Yoo also told the Yonhap News Agency that the estimated $2.6 billion in damages are the result of direct losses of livestock and compensation for the quarantine efforts.

The FMD epidemic was first reported in November 2010, and more than 3.3 million animals – primarily hogs – were culled to keep the disease from spreading. The country began its first round of vaccinations in late December, but the initial vaccinations were deemed unsuccessful as more cases continued to be reported and confirmed.

Like many of the country’s livestock producers, Lim Kang-soo, a cattle producer in the South Chungcheong Province, never believed his cows could fall victim to the contagious disease.

"We sterilized ourselves head to toe whenever we stepped in and out of the shed," Lim told Yonhap. “Our village is tucked away deep in the hills, 60 kilometers (37 miles) away from the closest FMD case. How could this have happened?”

An independent investigation commissioned by the Icheon municipality west of Seoul released a report pointing to transmission by air – not direct contact – as a likely primary force behind the rapid spread of the disease.

"Judging by the fact that the FMD spread rapidly in heavily controlled areas while they were quarantined, there is great possibility that the disease was boosted by this winter's cold snap and strong winds, transmitting pathogens via air," said the Icheon municipality in a press release.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik admits the government didn’t move quickly enough in the early stages of the FMD outbreak. "As a result, the government should take indefinite responsibility for the (latest) FMD situation," Kim said.

He pointed out that when the first case of FMD was reported in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, on Nov. 23, 2010, local quarantine authorities failed to deal appropriately with the situation.

"There was a fundamental problem in the quarantine system with regard to livestock disease," Kim said. "The government feels fully responsibility for it."

The prime minister was responding to opposition lawmakers' criticism against the government over the protracted pandemic.

South Korea has culled more than 3.3 million pigs and cattle over the past three months. The government is also struggling to minimize water and land contamination in and around burial sites.

Meanwhile, FMD continues to plague the impoverished socialist dictatorship of North Korea. Yonhap reports that at least seven cities and provinces in the starving nation are affected. In fact, South Korean Ag Minister Yoo Jeong-bok told a recent parliamentary meeting that “North Korea is taking quarantine and vaccination measures, but it appears that vaccination has been little effective.”

Radio Free Asia (RFA) says the North Korean regime has blocked vehicle traffic into Pyongyang and stopped issuing travel permits from its provinces to the capital city, which was the first location where the disease broke out. As pig farms in Pyongyang run by the ruling party and the Army's Guard Command were among those affected, the regime was reluctant to admit the outbreak, RFA says. The regime tried to contain the disease only with pesticides and lime, which led to rapid spread to neighboring provinces. Since then, the regime resorted to homegrown vaccine, which was also ineffective.

However, there are claims that the outbreak is giving North Koreans a rare opportunity to eat meat. RFA says that as soon as a pig was spotted drooling or staggering in Gangwon Province, residents immediately culled it for sale in the market. That caused a drop in pork prices in the province, leading to an influx of buyers from as far afield as South Pyongan Province.

Free North Korea Radio reports that on North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il's birthday on Feb. 16, meat from FMD-infected cattle and pigs was distributed to residents. In North Korea, food is so short that infected animals are eaten rather than buried.