What is foot-and-mouth disease?

In March 2001, there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (also known as hoof-and-mouth disease) among livestock in Great Britain. Officials in Great Britain and Europe are taking measures to contain the epidemic. However, the outbreak has caused large scale economic losses and meat shortages in Great Britain.

Foot-and-mouth disease is caused by a virus that affects hoofed animals such as cow, pigs, sheep and goats. Humans can be infected by the virus, but it is extremely rare. In the few cases that have been confirmed, those infected recovered quickly after experiencing mild flu-like symptoms and blisters. There have been no cases of human-to-human infection, and it is more likely for humans to trasmit the disease to animals. The virus causes blisters on the mouths and feet of infected animals as well as fever, lameness, lack of appetite, shivering and reduced milk production. The virus can be spread in several ways:


  • direct contact between infected and uninfected animals within a herd (it spreads quickly within a herd)
  • in the air - virus-containing aerosols can travel several miles (kilometers) with the prevailing winds
  • mechanically - on the soles of shoes or the tires of vehicles

The virus can survive in frozen conditions (such as a meat freezer), but can be killed by heat, dryness, and disinfectants.

Although the infected animals can recover from the disease within two to three weeks, officials agree that the best way to contain the disease is to destroy the infected animals. The infected animals are quarantined, slaughtered and burned to contain the disease. Furthermore, humans who travel through affected areas must be decontaminated, usually they must walk through a bath of disinfectant to kill any virus carried on their shoes. For example, airline travelers from Great Britain must submit to decontamination at airports throughout Europe. Likewise, the government restricts vehicle travel from affected to unaffected areas and those vehicles that do move must have their tires sprayed with disinfectant.

At present, there is no vaccine to prevent foot-and-mouth disease because the virus changes (mutates) rapidly. The costs of developing a vaccine and immunizing all livestock may be higher than dealing with the outbreaks as they occur.

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