BRITISH VETERINARY ASSOCIATION

CONGRESS 2002

 

Foot and Mouth Disease - an assessment

 by

Dr. Gordon Adam MEP

 

Introduction

 

Thank you for the invitation to address your congress and to take part in this important session on the foot and mouth outbreak.

The work of the European Parliament's temporary committee on foot and mouth is drawing towards its final stages. So this opportunity, to give you my own assessment and more particularly to benefit from your own views, is especially welcome.  I must stress, however, that my comments are personal.

The invitation gives me the opportunity to congratulate the BVA and your veterinary colleagues from many parts of the world for the contribution that was made during the epidemic.

As in all crises situations, the call of duty pushes personal considerations to one side and the country as a whole owes a great debt for your efforts.

Some of your members have also made valuable contributions to the many studies that have taken place since the outbreak. This was true at the meetings held by the EP Committee and our proceedings benefited greatly from your members' participation.

 

Public Opinion

 

When I spoke, I think it was at one of our public meetings in the Forest of Dean, I was challenged during the meeting, outside afterwards and later by email when I referred  to the outbreak as most probably starting a few miles from my home at Heddon on the Wall in Northumberland.

It was apparently the view of some that the disease had been present elsewhere and earlier. When I asked where, all I got was a reassertion of the statement but no location. I was also heckled on my comment that this had been the largest recorded outbreak anywhere in the world. It was clearly the belief of some that the widespread initial incidence had been exaggerated and of others that the efforts to bring the disease under control had caused it to spread more widely.

 

A rich variety of motives coloured the attitudes of those involved in the process of setting up and conducting the EP Temporary Committee.

On the political front there were those for whom the exercise was initiated by a desire for personal publicity in the candidate re-selection process as we approach the next elections for the EP.

There were those who saw it as an opportunity to attack the Government.

There were those who saw it as an opportunity to denigrate the European Commission and the European Union as a whole.

There were those who sought to use the outbreak as a reason to promote a more protectionist approach for the UK meat trade. Witness the considerable time given to the issue of imports.

On matters of farming practice there were those who blamed 'intensive farming' though I must say that this has never seemed obvious to me during my walks on the Cumbrian Fells.

There were those who seek on welfare grounds to restrict and stop live animal movements.

There were those who are against the slaughter of any animals, some even of infected animals.

On the handling of the disease there were those who opposed vociferously the

contiguous cull and for whom vaccination was the alternative.

There were those who criticised the slaughter practices.

There were those who objected to the disposal systems, the pyres and the burial sites.

The Dutch who were able to vaccinate were able to adjust the rate of slaughter to their rendering capacity.  They slaughtered all the vaccinated animals and used mobile slaughter houses for the purpose.

At times it was not easy to be sure if the concerns were for farming, for the rural communities or personal. There were certainly a few who were lured by prospects of yet more compensation.

All this is the stuff of politics and I make no complaint.

Only to observe that logic, science and reason are feeble weapons in such circumstances.

I would not be here today if I did not enjoy the cut and trust of such debates.

 

I come to the issue with some personal baggage. I am a strong supporter of the Government. The Ministers, Nick Brown and Joyce Quin, who were in the office at the start of the outbreak, are longstanding friends. I am influenced by my experience in the coal industry as a mining engineer fighting invisible gases as you were fighting an invisible virus. I know something about emergency situations.

Then, there are silent whiteness. The government was re-elected and, perhaps, of more relevance, so were the leaders of the N.F.U.  This hardly indicates wide spread revolt against the handling of the crisis.

 

The Aftermath:

                       

After all that has been said and written there are for me two main questions.

The first is : "Can a future outbreak be prevented?"

 

I have heard no one say 'yes', still less give a convincing system of avoidance.

Much has been said about personal  imports of bush meat and other exotic meat by allegedly paid couriers on air flights.

Lurid details have appeared in the media. There have been scornful comments about the two sniffer dogs being trained to detect such imports at Heathrow.

More notices at airports does not strike me as much of a deterrent. Examining all incoming baggage is not a viable option. On top of which the evidence presented to our Committee was that illegal meat imports - smuggled amongst other imports - was the main threat. I wonder if the sniffer dogs will be able to differentiate between legal and illegal meat.

Interestingly it appears that confiscated illegal meat is not tested for the foot and mouth virus so we have no real way of knowing the risk.

I understand that the USA have a meat import control system at the port of export, which, given their disease free record, may be the most effective option.

Given the prevalence of the virus world-wide I am left wondering if the disease free countries are really 100% disease free. Is it possible for the virus to lie dormant? Or is there, as the American witness told us, a large element of luck involved; that the USA system is not as robust as we here have been led to believe in certain quarters.

What seems certain to me is that any control system has to be based on a risk assessment.  Further the control system must be kept under constant review so that it can be adjusted to an outbreak elsewhere in the world.

I am, however, still puzzled how  some countries can remain disease free.

 

The second question is: "What must be done, in the event of another outbreak, to bring it under control as quickly as possible?"

I admit it is only a subjective judgement but my impression of the evidence and comments made at the  EP temporary committee, at the local enquires and in the media is that the concentration has been on six issues:

'         imports

'         lack of communication

'         vaccination

'         the contiguous call

'         animal movement, and

'         intensive farming.

In my mind these ignore two important aspects of the 2001 outbreak.

In the first place there was a long period in which infected animals were not reported, as required by law.

It follows that we have to ask ourselves if it is possible to ensure that infected animals will always be reported speedily. An effective surveillance system would surely mean that every animal would have to be looked at by a competent person at an interval related to the incubation period for the type of animal in question. 

Any new surveillance system must also be based on a risk assessment.

 

In the second place the outbreak was not identified at its primary source  but at an abattoir.  In these circumstances an immediate movement restriction limited to the infected premises will be less effective than if at the outbreak farm.

When an outbreak is suspected at a farm there is now a geographical limit on animal movements pending a determination. Confirmation will now result in an immediate nation-wide movement ban.

I am tempted to suggest at an off farm suspected outbreak should also result in a similar nation-wide ban. But I would need convincing that this is reasonable.

However in the case of a suspected outbreak there must be immediate steps to identify recent movements on and off the premises covering a specific period, perhaps 21 days. And in those cases where the suspected outbreak is off farm then I would favour a movement restriction notice on all those farms or premises involved in a movement to or from the site at least until the case is determined.

The implication is clear that whether a case is suspected or confirmed knowledge of animal movement, and location is essential in order to initiate the speedy response which all the official enquires have identified for effective action in response to a confirmed outbreak.

Could it have been different?

Could it have been handled better?

These questions are frequently asked.

 

I would put a more specific question.

In the circumstances of the UK outbreak could actions have been taken which would have reduced the number of animals slaughtered?

 

In the light of knowledge at the time decisions were taken it is doubtful if there can fairly be a positive answer to this question.

That is the conclusion I make from the from the Anderson & Follett reports.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is probable that an immediate national ban on all animal movements on 20th February 2001 would have had such an effect.

I didn't know of anyone who called for such action. And, if anyone had, it doesn't take much to imagine the response.

But mistakes were made and it is clear that the policies were not always implemented as well as might have been. What is also clear is that all the "leading foot and mouth experts" which according to the media now seem to abound at every corner end were, at end of February 2001, remarkably silent.

 

I do not have time to examine all the six issues I mentioned earlier but there is one where, in my view there was failure-that was in communication.

But not in the sense normally implied.

The failure was to communicate to the general public the highly infectious nature of the virus, the limited understanding that we had and still have of the nature of its transmission and the speed at which it can spread without detection during its incubation period.

Yet despite all this, the outbreak, the largest ever recorded, was, as the Anderson report states, brought under control 1 day sooner than the 67/68 outbreak.

 

Conclusions

 

The European Commission and the Anderson & Follett reports, as well as the overwhelming evidence presented to the EP Foot and Mouth Committee was supportive of the policy decisions if not of their implementation.

Immediate slaughter of infected premises and dangerous contacts remain the front line of defence. In the circumstances of the 2001 outbreak a contiguous cull was also necessary with vaccination unlikely to be effective. Vaccination to live in the circumstances of a more normal outbreak will almost certainly have a higher priority in the future. Though when, where and how remain to be elaborated.

I doubt if the marketing and other issues can be resolved by 2003 as Follett suggests. Nevertheless I see the logic of a vaccination to live approach. Animals are routinely vaccinated for a number of  reasons and subsequently enter the food chain. Why should an effective Foot and Mouth vaccine be treated differently? I would only add that the definitions of 'known dangerous contacts' and 'premises where there is a high risk of disease' have rich potential for dispute.

There is a last lesson to be learnt if it is not already obvious and it is a lesson to be learnt by you, the BVA.

It is this. There is an ongoing role for the BVA and your European sister organisations to make your experience and views known to the European and National parliaments as to how animal disease control legislation should be developed and implemented. Legislators and administrators are only as good as the understanding they have of the issues involved. In the case of Foot and Mouth Control we are still all on a learning curve.

I look forward to the discussion and a continuing dialogue between the BVA and the European Parliament and its committees.

 

(Adapted from an address to the BVA Congress in Stratford-on-Avon, 5th October 2002)