Speed key to stopping foot and mouth disease


By Andy Coghlan “Speed, speed and more speed” is what is needed to avoid a repeat of 2001’s catastrophic foot and mouth epidemic in Britain, an official inquiry into the “lessons learned” concludes. Over six million animals were destroyed and the epidemic cost the nation £8 billion. “Time and time again during the inquiry, the issue of speed was emphasised to us,” says Iain Anderson, ex-director of Unilever and the author of the report. “Speed of identification of the virus, speed of diagnosis, speed of slaughter and speed of mobilising the full resources of the government.” Although heavily pressed to do so by journalists, Anderson resisted finding scapegoats. “The nation will not be best served by seeking to blame individuals,” he said. And while he heavily backs vaccination as a way of preventing the spread of a future outbreak, he says it “was not an option” in 2001 because the virus was too dispersed. By the time foot and mouth had been diagnosed on 20 February, “at least 57 farms in 16 counties had been infected”, says the report. “Looking at all I know now, vaccination was probably out of the question,” says Anderson. The UK’s new Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Margaret Beckett, acknowledged that the epidemic was “one of the worst the modern world has ever seen” and that mistakes had been made by the government. These were apparent with hindsight, she said, and the government would accept most if not all of the reports recommendations. The report says slack surveillance was the biggest problem, compounded by a severely depleted State Veterinary Service (SVS) unable to keep tabs on emerging diseases on farms. The report says that warnings made in 2000 by Jim Scudamore, the government’s chief vet, about the rapid spread of foot and mouth in other countries and the UK’s unpreparedness went unheeded. But in defence of the SVS, the report notes that in 1967, during Britain’s last major FMD outbreak, there were about 600 staff. By 2001, there were just 286, with only 220 in the field. It took a month to detect the disease but, even then, the failure to halt all animal movements on 20 February made matters much, much worse. By the time movements were frozen on 23 February, sales of some 24,000 infected sheep had ghosted the virus throughout the UK. No one in government took the scale of the crisis seriously until 35 days into the outbreak, says the report. That is when Tony Blair, the Prime Minister,
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