Richard North (Dr)
Research Director EDD (European Parliament)
4 June 2001

Six million more to die?

Despite Professor King the chemist's confident prediction that the foot and
mouth epidemic was going to come skidding to a halt on 7 June, he now seems
to be having second thoughts.  Without so much as a blush, he is suggesting
that it might go on until August, but even that is a little hesitant.  We get
the impression that it might be even longer.  

King the chemist has not actually said it'll be over by Christmas, and just
as well, given the historical resonances of such predictions.  For my part, I
can confidently predict the disease will be over by Christmas.  The only
thing I am not prepared to do is say which one.
 On the basis of what we are
seeing, the epidemic could run well into next year and beyond.

Un-Settle-ing signs

Perhaps the strongest clue to how deadly the situation has become is the
experience in Settle - the Bermuda 'rectangle' of foot and mouth.  Crucially,
while sheep flocks in Cumbria were being found with infection levels of 10-20
percent, as much as 80 percent of animals in the Settle area have been found
infected.  Add to that the reports from vets that they are finding a high
proportion of healed lesions and this becomes highly significant and very

What this amounts to is that, far from Settle suffering from 'sporadic
outbursts', as prime minister Blair put it, the disease has been there some
considerable time and has become well-established.  It had not suddenly
spread to the area.  It had been there for a considerable time.

To fully understand this, it must be appreciated that - contrary to the
'urban myths' happily retailed by media correspondents - foot and mouth
disease is not highly infectious, at least, not in sheep.  Far from 'ripping
through flocks' like wildfire, it affects a very small proportion, up to five
percent at a time.  

Those animals pass it on to others and then, in the main, recover.  The
newly-infected animals pass it on to others, and so on.  Far from 'ripping
through', the disease ripples though the flock, slowly, insidiously and, as
often as not, undetected.  Sheep will show only transient signs of infection,
perhaps for two or three days.  Thus, to find flocks with high levels of
infection is the best possible indicator of long-established infection.

The Cheshire experience

With disease long-established in Cumbria, and now with evidence of a similar
status in the Yorkshire Dales, it does not take a genius to work out that,
when the disease 'popped up' in the Clitheroe and Knutsford locales, that
these were not isolated outbreaks.  Just looking at a map, the more likely
explanation is that the disease has broken out of the Cumbria 'ring' and
taken a right turn on its way to Settle.

The problem here, in addition to the sheep, is the wild-life.  The whole
point of the rapid response to foot and mouth, and the 'slash and burn'
tactics is to remove infection from the environment as fast as possible, not
least to ensure that it does not get established in the wild animal and bird
populations, which can harbour and spread the virus.

However, with the disease now established for, at the very least, four months
and almost certainly longer, it is now inconceivable that there has been no
spread into wild animals and birds.
 With free-roaming populations of Roe
deer in some localities, rabbits, foxes, rats, mice and even hedgehogs (which
can actually suffer the disease) it is certain that there is a significant
natural reservoir of the disease, outside the farm animal population.

Furthermore, a plausible and worrying mechanism of spread is the bird
population - carrion crows, the range of raptors, magpies, starlings and even
seagulls.  All or any of these have the potential to spread the disease, to
the extent that it would be improbable if they were not somehow involved.  
While the Ministry of Agriculture might prefer to pin the blame on errant
farmers, vehicle movements, etc., it would be highly unwise to rule out
spread by these mechanisms.

Add to that strong rumours that the disease has spread into East Yorkshire
and down into Lincolnshire, has been well-established in Derbyshire for some
time, and is roaring away through the Brecon Beacons - as well as grumbling
on in Devon - and the picture is far from happy.  No comfort can be taken
from Ministry reports.  These have long proved unreliable - and even
recently, a well-authenticated report was received of infection on the hills
to the east of Manchester, which the Ministry chose to ignore.

Killing to go on

By day 100 of the epidemic, the headline figure of 3,000,000 animals
slaughtered had been reached, a daily average of 30,000 animals.  In fact, as
we now know, the Ministry had not been counting recently born progeny - which
could account for a million more (as a very conservative estimate).  

Add to that the million-plus animals killed on the 'welfare' scheme and the
700,000 on the 'firebreak' cull in Cumbria and Devon that went missing from
the Ministry lists.  Then add the thousands of animals that were killed 'by
mistake' or have been picked up on routine blood testing and slaughtered
(mass slaughter was under way on the Isle of Sheppy during the Spring Bank
Holiday, which has not been reported by the Ministry).  Altogether, the
number of animals killed by the Ministry in its response to foot and mouth
has to be well into 6,000,000.  It is possible that the figure could be as
high as eight million.  And that was by day 100.

As it stands, there has been no diminution of the killing rate.  On average,
at least 30,000 animals a day are being killed.  And, in accordance with the
procedure laid down by the EU Commission for restoration of EU 'disease-free'
status, large numbers of animals must be blood tested.  With the wide spread
of the disease and the longevity of the epidemic, it is a matter of certainty
that large numbers of animals will show up positive when they are tested -
this is what happened in Sheppy.

On this basis, there are absolutely no grounds for believing that, over the
next three months - bringing us to the end of August - the killing rate will
diminish at all.  With more of Blair's 'sporadic outbursts', there is every
expectation that, for the next 100 days, the daily average will be sustained
at a 30,000-plus 'headline' figure.  Given the structural under-reporting by
MAFF, that means, before the epidemic is over, we must expect another six
million animals to die.  Twelve million animals will have been slaughtered -
one in five - or 20 percent of the farm animal population in the UK.

And even then, it may not be over.