Kansas State Professor Helps United Kingdom Battle Foot And Mouth Disease

By Jason Nicol

KSU News Service

The last five months have been a trying time for farmers in the United Kingdom. While the English countryside has been ravaged by the effects of foot and mouth disease, the country as a whole has fought to overcome the economic impact of the disease.

According to the United Kingdomís Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there had been 1,793 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease as of June 28, with two to three more cases surfacing daily. The number of farms and businesses directly affected by the disease stands at 8,450 and there have been more than 3.4 million animals slaughtered. Soon after the outbreak began, leaders decided that the United Kingdom wouldnít be able to overcome this misfortune on its own, and so enlisted the help of veterinary scientists from around the world.

George Kennedy, professor and assistant director of the Diagnostic Laboratory at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University, was one of more than 200 American scientists who was asked to travel to the United Kingdom in an effort to identify and to help contain the spread of foot and mouth disease.

"The veterinariansí main objective was to lend a helping hand," Kennedy said. "The situation offered American researchers a chance to see the disease on a first-hand basis." Kennedy arrived in the United Kingdom May 2 and spent the majority of his time in Carlisle in the northwest corner of the country. He returned to Manhattan June 1. He said the disease is isolated in rural areas.

"Itís bad in certain areas and economically it has affected not only the agricultural communities, but also the tourist industry," Kennedy said. "But as far as overall England, I donít think that life has been directly affected. The disease has spread around the whole country, but itís in pockets."

Kennedy called the virus that causes foot and mouth, known scientifically as an aphthovirus, one of the most contagious known to veterinarians. It affects cloven-hoofed animals, and as few as 10 virus particles can cause an infection. The virus is inhaled or ingested and multiplies throughout the animalís body, resulting in blisters in the oral cavity, the tops of hooves, udders and anywhere that friction occurs. Animals that contract the disease when they are pregnant tend to abort the fetus. The virus can affect the heart muscle of nursing-aged animals, which quickly kills the animal, Kennedy said.

"The main thing that you see then is blisters in the mouth, so they donít want to eat and they lose weight and lactating animals cease milking," Kennedy added. "The blisters on their feet become very painful, so they donít want to walk, so a range cow that may have to walk a mile or more to water develops problems with dehydration."

Kennedy said the mortality rate for young animals is higher than for adults. "In adult animals the mortality is quite low. Those blisters will heal and with any kind of good nursing care theyíll get over those blisters in about two weeks," he said.

The main impact of the disease is economic. Dairy cows donít produce milk, beef cows lose weight and calves, and the virus makes the animal vulnerable to other infections. Sheep and pigs are similarly affected, Kennedy said. Farmers are hurt by the export restrictions on meat and dairy products. Many farmers lose their entire livelihoods to foot and mouth. They are quarantined on their farms for weeks at a time. In many instances their animals are euthanized to curtail the spread of the disease. Still, most of the farmers Kennedy talked to are in favor of euthanasia as a means to eradicate the disease and in order to open up the export markets again.

"When a farmer has an outbreak diagnosed on their farm, then all the cattle, pigs and sheep are depopulated. All the animals on the farms that are immediately adjacent to the infected farm are depopulated," Kennedy said. "The reason is they are trying to get rid of all the host and reservoirs that the virus could spread from."

In the northwest part of England, where Kennedy was stationed, there were six to seven new cases a day, when he first arrived. By the time he left that number had dropped to two or three, he said. "There were families on some farms that were quarantined because they were close to farms that had been infected, and there were families that hadnít been off their farm since the beginning of the outbreak," Kennedy said. "They have neighbors bring groceries to them and hand them over the fence. There was a teenage boy who hadnít seen his girlfriend in two months."

Kennedy said the experience as a whole was educational for him, and that he has a better understanding of what it takes to overcome a disease like foot and mouth.

"I think what Iíve brought back is a personal experience of how an outbreak is handled, the devastation that it can cause, and the first-hand knowledge of how contagious it is," Kennedy said. "I think itís useful for teaching, and if we should ever have an outbreak, we will have a group of veterinarians in the country who have some first-hand experience with the disease. I also think that those of us who were there can help the states and the USDA to develop a better preparedness."

If the United States is to avoid the tragedy that is occurring in the United Kingdom, American producers and veterinarians must be aware of foot and mouth disease and other foreign-animal diseases, Kennedy said.

"Producers have to recognize when an animal appears to have the disease and call a veterinarian or contact the animal health authorities to confirm the disease. The farm may then be quarantined to stop movement of the animals and the spread of the disease."