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Willem Schaftenaar DVM,
Rotterdam Zoo and Chairman of the Committee of Zoo
Veterinarians of the Royal Dutch Veterinary Association.
Rotterdam, March 21, 2001 

Open letter to:

The Dutch Parliament
The Board of the Royal Dutch Association of Veterinarians
The Director of the Veterinary Faculty, Utrecht
All veterinarians and FMD-experts in Europe

I hold all veterinarians that worked on the creation and the elaboration of the non-vaccination policy responsible for the unnecessary destruction of livestock and the personal misery poured over the farmers involved.

I hold the Royal Netherlands Veterinary Association accessory to the situation that has occurred in the Netherlands. As supposed front liner for the veterinary profession, the Association should have expressed its disapproval of the non-vaccination policy in the past and should disapprove of it today.

I accuse all veterinarians, virologists and other experts in the field of  FMD-epidemiology and the fight against this virus of indolence and  reluctance to face up to their responsibility by continuing to keep silent about the predictable failure of the non-vaccination policy.

I hold the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Utrecht responsible for the silence of independent experts when it comes to the only morally acceptable method of fighting FMD, namely by mass vaccination. All expertise seems to be locked away in the institutes that fall under the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture.

I sympathise with all the non-veterinary workers of the Ministry of  Agriculture who get orders from the top to carry out a non-vaccination policy even though they do so against their conscience.

I appeal to every individual with decision-making responsibility to plead for a vaccination policy for those diseases that can be prevented by a vaccine in order to show that we do have some remnants of civilisation.

I take reproach myself that I did not make my voice heard before the crises broke in England.  During the past weeks the threat of a FMD outbreak has been on everyone’s mind. Our whole society seems to be preoccupied with the problem. The media describes a disaster that has struck us fatefully. Experts emphasize the enormously contagious nature of the virus. Overwhelmed by the facts,  consumers try to understand the logic behind current government policy.

Agricultural economists present calculations to illustrate we had the following choice in 1991:

1. To earn more money in the animal production sector through exports of  meat and milk products to the United States, Japan and Canada.  Conditions: a non-vaccination policy or

2. Continue the old policy of annual vaccination without the attractive export bonus.

From a financial perspective it was argued the animal production sector  and its associated sectors, would earn a nice amount of money even if  there were a FMD outbreak once every 10 years. The politicians at that  time chose for a non-vaccination policy and were supported by several agricultural sectors.  This policy became European law and is now  irrevocable, isn’t it? This is how present policy is explained to consumers of livestock products. By not vaccinating our livestock since 1991, we now have a livestock population that has become naïve. There is not a single animal in the European Union that has antibodies against FMD. This is the result of the conditions imposed by United States, Japan and Canada in return for allowing us to export meat and milk products to these countries!

In the recent months we have seen the fruits of this policy: hundreds of  thousands animals have been destroyed in the UK which has always been a great advocate of the non-vaccination policy. Only a small percentage of these animals were actually suffering from FMD. Now that the virus has appeared in the Netherlands, there is panic. Transportation of animals has been banned and then lifted for animal welfare reasons only to be banned again when the threat becomes more urgent. The air is full of political wrangling. Political parties try to use the chaotic situation for their own interests. The Minister of Agriculture tries to place the vaccination policy on the European agenda and is despised when his colleagues do not want to listen to him.

There is a virus. It is one of the most contagious viruses. This virus can maintain itself in apparently healthy carriers for a long time. In an animal population that has never been in contact with it or the vaccine-virus it can spread rapidly. In general the damage is restricted. For the animals FMD is —generally speaking — less serious than a salmonella infection. It is harmless for humans. The few cases that affected humans were mild. A few hours (or days) before the animal starts showing symptoms (some animals never show clinical signs at all!), the virus has already been excreted massively. This means that every ban on transport always comes too late. It also means, that killing all animals on a farm always comes too late. Both measures will help to slow down the FMD epidemic, but they are not sufficient. Furthermore, there is a real chance that wild animals such as deer and swine are also affected. The virus can easily evade the stamping out policy used in the animal production industry and survive for an indeterminate period of time in wild animals and natural carriers. Even the most draconic methods cannot prevent this.

A vaccine exists. In the past, cattle were vaccinated every year. This provided reasonable protection. Repeating the vaccination after 6 months was a better option, but once a year helped to prevent mass outbreaks. If an outbreak occurred quick ring-vaccination and the destruction of a few herds was sufficient to control the outbreak.

Times have changed. More and more animals are being transported all over the world. The risk of spreading FMD has increased. The solution seems so simple: vaccinate of all FMD-susceptible animals as the Office International des Epizooties (OIE) has advised. This means vaccination twice a year will help stop the virus spreading. Infection trials have shown that vaccinated animals do not transmit the virus to non-vaccinated, susceptible animals. This simple solution is every epidemiologist’s dream. USA, Japan and Canada will close their borders? 

Sorry, but was not our intention to reduce agricultural production in Western Europe? "Small-scale farming and a reduction in the number of  farms", politicians have repeatedly told us.  The non-vaccination policy leads to mass destruction of healthy livestock and animals that suffer of  a self-curable disease. This policy has transgressed the border of  civilization. In this world, overproduction of dung, meat, milk and butter is being subsidized and the whole is based on a policy of ‘Russian roulette’. FMD is a permit to kill animals once every 10 years pushing farmers into an abyss of misery. More than 560 farms have been ‘cleaned’. Each mass culling harbours a personal drama. Suicide is not an exception. Politicians rightfully support the culling of cattle to prevent people  from getting Creutzfeldt Jakobs Disease — millions have been spent on this operation — but at the same time, these politicians are responsible for the tragedy that comes to farmers when their animals are suspected of FMD.  Or is suicide from despair less serious than dying from Creutzfeldt Jakobs Disease?

Ministers of Agriculture are advised by their agricultural economists and veterinarians. Those who have been trained in veterinary science know how the FMD virus behaves. They are supposed to know the epidemiology of  FMD.  They are supposed to know that a non-vaccinated herd is a ready prey for the virus. These people are trained to guarantee the welfare of  animals. Their duty is not to the economists with their chilly paper  calculations showing that an increase in profit for a limited number of farmers over a 10-year-period can justify the extent of the drama now taking place. These experts, schooled in medicine, should give their ministers advice based on knowledge. FMD cannot be banned with the tools we are using now. At this moment, the UK has more natural carriers of FMD than it has had for 40 years.

Now, I feel ashamed of being a veterinarian.

Willem Schaftenaar DVM, Rotterdam Zoo and Chairman of the Committee of Zoo
Veterinarians of the Royal Dutch Veterinary Association.