Foot-and-Mouth Disease

(This column was first published in the March 19, 2001 Buffalo News.)

     Farmers stand very high in my pantheon of heroes.

     I honor their love of the land. I appreciate their respect for the growing plants and animals for which they care. While I do not always share their conservative beliefs, I admire how strongly they not only hold but live up to their values. I am thankful that their ever-diminishing community continues to put food on our tables. And I regard their remarkably strong work ethic with embarrassment at my own shortcomings. Quite simply farmers are very good people.

     But wow, do they lead tough lives.

     Their strengths are tested at every turn. The same weather god who provides sun and rain for growth is a hot-tempered and ungovernable deity who strikes out often at the worst possible times. Rains that would be welcomed in mid-summer instead come down for day after spring day to flood fields and delay planting. A luscious fruit crop is destroyed in minutes by a hailstorm.

     New insect pests or crop diseases beset them. And finally when weather befriends them to provide bumper crops and fat animals, prices plummet. Or the government -- seemingly responsive only to us in cities and suburbs -- turns on them once again. Like Rodney Dangerfield, farmers get no respect.

     Now they must worry about a terrible new threat -- the possibility that foot-and-mouth disease will return to decimate their animals. This dread disease is currently driving British agriculture to its knees. The virus has been newly identified in France, and it is already widespread in Africa, Asia and South America.

     Fortunately, we have been free of this disease since the last outbreak in 1929, but before that it invaded this country nine times. This lengthy absence actually increases the threat here because natural immunities have declined.

     A bane of cloven-hoofed cows, pigs, sheep and deer, foot-and-mouth disease is characterized by fever and blisters on the ruminant's tongue, lips, teats and between the nails of feet. Although afflicted animals can recover, they remain debilitated, their meat and milk production drops severely, they can be re-infected and they will always carry the disease.

     Our animals have not been vaccinated; many claim that vaccination is of little help anyway. The current control method practiced in the United Kingdom is destruction of the complete herd of an infected animal, incineration of the carcasses and isolation of all farms within five miles. Farmers receive some compensation for destroyed animals so their disease-free neighbors suffer even worse immediate financial losses.

     A veterinarian during the 1967 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in England described the air "thick with the smell of disinfectant and burning carcasses," an evening sky that "would glow a warm red from numerous fires," and "farmers who lost their herds and in many cases their livelihoods." Help hotlines in England today are being swamped with calls from farmers who simply don't know what to do. And suicides are up.

     Perhaps the worst feature of this disease is the ease with which it is spread. The virus remains viable in carcasses, animal byproducts, water, straw and bedding and even in pastures. The English outbreak evidently spread from imported animal swill.  Foot-and-mouth disease is communicated not only by infected animals and by movement of these associated materials but also on exposed clothing or footwear. That is why major UK horse races are being cancelled.

     The very idea of an outbreak here is sobering. Loss estimates are in the billions and if the disease spread to wildlife, deer would remain a reservoir and farms would face continuing infestations.

     Our agriculture agents are on guard but I pray for our farmers.-- Gerry Rising