A Bloodbath on May Bank Holiday

On 3 May 2001 Uruguay, in the grip of Foot and Mouth disease, decided to vaccinate their entire 10.4 million cattle herd. Their rigorous culling policy, begun ten days ago, failed to stop the disease spreading to other areas. So they have called it off.

On the same day a smiling Tony Blair the British Prime Minister (and about to announce a general election) announced to the world that Britain, after more than ten weeks of the disease, is in the "home straight".

It may not be that simple.

There are increasing parts of the country, thought just days ago to be disease free, where new outbreaks are occurring. Last weekend there was an outbreak in Essex. This weekend, there are more outbreaks in West Somerset. Exmoor is under threat. It is another beautiful tourist area like the already ravaged Dumfries and Galloway, Cumbria, and Devon. The disease has not been contained in spite of nearly ten weeks of killing and the death of over 2 million animals. This comes as no surprise to those scientists and experts who have so earnestly advocated vaccination from the beginning. One of these is Professor Fred Brown, awarded the O.B.E. from the Queen for his services in this very field. He is a world expert. He is British. He was not consulted.

And this May Bank Holiday weekend what we are seeing in Britain is the emergence of so-called "hot-spots" - apparently long jumps of airborne virus. Speedy vaccination would have avoided this. We are also seeing a bloodbath of healthy sheep, pigs and cattle of monstrous proportions. No longer is there any attempt to shield the public passing in their cars from the execution of hundreds of animals by the roadside. No one surely can now doubt that this is a last ditch effort to wipe out the disease by wiping out its victims - and incidentally, wiping out any future furore about the measures taken if the whole sorry business were to drag on. On Saturday afternoon, May 5th, for example, there was a cull next to the main road at Newby Bridge in the Lake District. This morning there was one on the Broughton -Coniston road. No warning was given and the roads were not closed. People came upon it by accident and were deeply upset and shocked.

But the nastiest aspect of all this does not reach the world's press. To deal with the huge numbers of healthy animals to be killed - very many with their young or heavily pregnant - Maff have put together a huge work force of animal killers in protective suits. Most are decent enough people. Even the vets - many of whom are still students - cannot be expected to be experts in a disease that has not ravaged Britain since 1967. They are understandably not keen to question orders to the slaughter after so long. "No alternative," they say. "Vaccination doesn't work."
It is the party line. And it isn't true.

Unfortunately there are well documented accounts of some who have taken to their task with a will. Terrified animals, smiling executioners, weeping owners. These officials who arrive at the farm gates look like something out of a horror film of the future. But in Europe, all this can only remind us of the past.

Even pet owners have found they have no powers to refuse the cull -though at the start they were assured that they still had rights over their animals unless they were found to be infected. One rule for all, say the officials, impatient with anyone who tries to slow down the process with what they see as irritating sentiment. When a handful of pet animals - including the photogenic white calf "Phoenix"- were saved it was easy for their political rivals to ridicule the government for putting fear of public condemnation before the upholding of their ruthless policy. So now - all healthy animals with cloven hooves unfortunate enough to be within a 3 km area of any new suspected outbreak are slaughtered. Friday night, (May 4th) before the eyes of sickened cameramen and shouting bystanders, police and vets broke into a barricaded house in Dumfries to kill a widow's five rare breed pet sheep. Their distraught owner had kept them in her own house for days. They were healthy. They were not destined for market. Her pleas to have them saved fell on the deaf ears of a Scottish Court.

There are hundreds of such cases ; people who rejected a policy that seemed barbaric were beaten down in the end. But sadly, many good people just quietly accepted that the government knew best and gave up. " I hated losing my animals - but how could I put my neighbours at risk?" they would say, often in tears.

But why this demonisation of a disease that has been around for centuries? Surely, people ask, this disease is not fatal to the animals? And even if it were so terrible, surely we have vaccines now?

Of course we do. Enough vaccine of the correct strain for the outbreak exists in emergency vaccine format at the British Animal Institute for Health at Pirbright [1] and among the European vaccine bank in other Member States.

What is more, animals vaccinated with modern strong emergency vaccine simply do not pass the infection on. [2] [3] A few - a very few -may be called "carriers" Unlike the vast majority of the vaccinated animals in their herd they harbour infection silently without symptoms for up to nine months.. But this is simply dealt with. Following vaccination, a herd is quarantined after 30 days by which time it is possible to identify any "carriers" This was the system used so successfully in the 2000 Korea outbreak of the same strain. ( source: OIE, Paris, web-site, weekly bulletins,2000)

The Pirbright vaccine is strong and does not need to be repeated ; there are 500 000 doses available. [4]Even if European vaccine were used- which does require a booster at 28 days - Bayer AG pharmaceuticals have offered to produce 1 million doses every 5 days. [5]

Maff , and behind them the powerful National Farmers' Union executive with financial links to Monsanto and its ilk, argued against all the very cogent arguments in favour of vaccination. It said that vaccination does not result in complete immunity. True - but 100% immunity has never been necessary to cause the dying out of the disease. Without vaccination - and where there has been a considerable delay to take action, as in Britain - infection from the virus load in the air can pass quickly from farm to farm.

Whereas vaccinated animals will pass a very much reduced level of virus into the air and many have no detectable virus in their secretions at all, without vaccination there will be silent and undetected carriers in herds all over the country. They will not develop the disease but they may well pass it on.

Upholders of the zonal cull policy will say that the necessary tests were not available to check for infection without laboratory equipment. Suspected animals are being killed first and tested later. It appears that some quarter of these diagnoses are wrong, but the resultant cull will have already taken place.

In fact there is a test for sheep, the 3ABC-MAT ELISA test already evaluated and validated. Others too are available but owing to an extraordinary - indeed bizarre -delay in their validation both in the UK and in France, they were not deemed "safe" by Maff. An employee of the French suppliers All Diag told me, "It is very odd. They have had it for a very long time. My guess is that they are waiting for Pirbright's results to come out." Sinister, indeed.

If Britain had vaccinated as soon as it was clear the disease had been present too long for a pre-emptive cull - as so many, many people advised - then a very large proportion of the "3 million or so" animals officially accounted for would not have been killed. The problems of disposal : filthy and noxious pyres - visible from outer space, - the anguish of farmers seeing their life's work lying dead in their yards for days before collection, the knock-on effect of job loss and misery would have been avoided. The farmers, stockholders and pet owners who loved and respected their livestock would never have had to endure the living nightmare of the last ten weeks.

And the British people would never have had to wake up to the fact that their government was putting agricultural trade profits before decency, and rigorous protectionism before an honest admission of the facts.

Uruguay realised on Thursday, the culling wasn't working. They were going to have to lose their foot and mouth free status "without vaccination" and in Uruguay that can mean for four years. No wonder they hesitated. The price of vaccinated meat fetches only about half the price of unvaccinated meat on the international markets. For that is of course what lies behind the whole scandalous and heartbreaking affair. There was never any way that the faceless ones were going to allow vaccination. For some of the farmers the loss of so many sheep was even rather timely - there was much talk of "liquid gold" as the corpses piled - and it has long been deplored by the agribusinessmen that there were so many sheep in Britain.

So the weeks have gone by and there have been signs of greater and greater intransigence as the perpetrators dig in and will their policy to work. In 1991 it was Britain herself who,at the insistence of her far too powerful food lobby, persuaded the European Union to halt the routine vaccination of livestock . A mistake. The FMD virus, as the International Herald Tribune remarked so memorably on March 24th, travels with a fluidity comparable only to that of the movements of capital.

MC