Vaccination a tool of first resort in foot and mouth

Gavin McCrone, Vice-Chairman, Royal Society of Edinburgh Inquiry into Foot and Mouth Disease
Scotland on Sunday, 18 August 2002

Jim Walker, president of the NFU Scotland, goes too far in asserting that the Royal Society of Edinburgh inquiry, of which I was vice-chairman, accepted that vaccination was not the answer for the 2001 epidemic of foot and mouth disease (Letters, August 4).

The focus of our inquiry was to find a better way of handling this dreadful disease in future, in the firm belief that what happened in 2001 was unacceptable and should not have been necessary. We recognised that the disease was in some respects better handled in Scotland than in England and was eliminated more quickly.

But the cost was immense, not only in economic terms but in trauma and anguish for so many of those affected. Having examined all the issues, we recommended that for the future emergency vaccination should be a tool of first rather than last resort, with the vaccinated animals allowed to live and subsequently go into the food chain.

Because we concerned ourselves with the future we did not make a judgment on whether vaccination should or should not have been used in 2001. We recognised there would have been problems to overcome had vaccination been used then, but the policy which was followed also created major problems and did widespread damage. Some of the problems raised by vaccination, such as the trade restrictions following the use of vaccine, have now been eased, and we recommended how others should be tackled for the future.

But we were impressed with the experience of Uruguay, which also had a very serious outbreak in 2001. This started in late April, two months after the first case in the UK; Uruguay vaccinated its cattle with relatively small numbers slaughtered and was able to export deboned beef to the European Union on November 1, 2001. The restrictions on exports from the UK to the European Union were not lifted until January 2002.

The real lesson of the 2001 epidemic was that, despite the known spread of the disease across the world, the UK was inadequately prepared.