There are few words in the English language that get consumers and farmers quaking in their boots like foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). When FMD struck the United Kingdom (UK) in 2001, the image of livestock burning on pyres was televised into living rooms across the country. All told, the episode forced the slaughter of six million animals, and rocked the economy to the tune of $13 billion.

Understandably, the country held its breath for nearly a week when on Aug. 3, the news came that the disease had struck again. But this time, FMD was stopped in its tracks thanks to a lightning-fast reaction from the farming community and the government alike.

Though the UK Chief Veterinary Officer Debby Reynolds is still calling for “vigilance” from the livestock sector as a whole, the disease reached only as far as two farms in Surrey in southern England and never made it past the 3-km protection zone that was set up within hours of the outbreak. Test results from a suspected third farm came back as negative to the relief of the farmer and the country.

A laboratory escape?

Definitive results as to why the outbreak happened were unavailable at press time, but preliminary investigations showed the disease somehow escaped from the Pirbright laboratory complex, which houses the UK government's Institute of Animal Health and the privately owned lab for Merial Animal Health a few miles down the road from the infected farms. Both labs do research on FMD and are developing vaccines for the disease based on the strain that caused the 1967 FMD outbreak in the UK. The government lab is also the international testing center for FMD strains worldwide.

Despite the innocuous cause of the current outbreak, it was the 2001 outbreak that forced the UK to put in place tight control measures that allowed it to keep damage to a minimum. European Union (EU) regulations on FMD require an absolute ban of all susceptible animals and animal products from entering other EU member states. Meanwhile, several other countries, including the U.S., Japan and South Korea, imposed immediate trade bans, but the situation could have been far worse.

“The European Commission is satisfied with the prompt response of the UK veterinary authorities to the outbreak of FMD in Surrey. We have all learned the lessons of the 2001 outbreak, especially on the need to take a precautionary approach at the outset in order to contain and eradicate the disease,” said Philip Tod, EU spokesman for EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou.

Part of the reason the outbreak was caught early and contained was due to an intensive information campaign among the rural community as part of the UK's response to the 2001 crisis. The UK's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has several pamphlets available in print and on its Web site detailing not only the disease's symptoms, but also step-by-step instructions on what to do if FMD is found on the farm and what steps the government and agencies will take to contain it.

Exotic-disease planning

The communication program was part of an extensive contingency plan for exotic diseases that the UK parliament re-approved in late December 2006, and covered what to do not only in the event of an FMD outbreak, but also in cases of Avian Influenza, Newcastle Disease, Classical Swine Fever, African Swine Fever and Swine Vesicular Disease.

The contingency plan, in the case of FMD, was a follow-up to Exercise Hornbeam, a nationwide simulation in 2004 of exactly what would happen in a likely FMD outbreak. According to DEFRA, the final exercise was built on decisions taken at the earlier exercises that looked at the initial disease phases of suspicion, confirmation and regional spread of FMD.

Less than a week from when last month's outbreak was first discovered, the government's intense preparation paid off and the all-out ban on animal movement in the UK was partially lifted outside the 10 km surveillance zone around the infected farms, allowing animals to go to slaughterhouses and dead animals to be removed from private property. From early on in the outbreak, the movement ban was lifted in Northern Ireland because of its physical separation from the rest of the UK.

Exports of livestock and related meat products from the UK to the EU have been banned until at least Aug. 25. EU vets were to again assess the situation on Aug. 23 and may rule to lift the trade ban if the FMD situation in the UK has been resolved, but results weren't available at press time.

The UK's Meat and Livestock Commission estimates bans related to the FMD outbreak will cost $20 million/week in lost exports, but the losses will come nowhere near to the 2001 outbreak.

Meghan Sapp is an American freelance writer based in Brussels, Belgium.