Aug 6, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), a cattle disease that devastated the British beef industry in 2001, has resurfaced in England, possibly because of a laboratory leak.
The disease was found in cattle on a farm about 30 miles southwest of London, British officials announced on Aug 3. The strain of virus isolated from the cattle is similar to a strain used at a laboratory about 4 miles away, the United Kingdom's Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has said.
The lab, located at Pirbright, is shared by the Institute of Animal Health, a government-funded organization, and Merial Animal Health Ltd., an American-owned company that makes FMD vaccine, according to the Associated Press and other news services.
FDM is an extremely contagious disease that affects cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and deer, causing sores in the mouth and on the hooves. It debilitates but does not usually kill adult animals, but it drastically reduces milk production, according to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report. The disease very rarely affects humans, according to DEFRA.
In 2001 a major FMD outbreak in Britain led authorities to destroy 7 million cattle in the name of containment, crippling the farm economy and rural tourism.
To stop the new outbreak—the first since 2001—officials have destroyed 97 cattle, including 64 at the infected site and 33 on two other sites that are part of the same farming business, DEFRA said in a statement today. The cattle on the other two sites showed no signs of disease, but testing showed that one animal was infected, the agency said. The cattle carcasses were burned.
Britain banned exports of livestock, meat, and milk and froze movements of cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs nationwide in response to the outbreak, according the AP. The European Union endorsed the export ban today, the Times of London reported.
An AP report today said veterinary experts matched the strain found on the farm to the lab shared by the Institute of Animal Health and Merial. DEFRA described the strain as similar to one that caused an FMD outbreak in Britain in 1967.
DEFRA said officials at the Pirbright facility launched an immediate investigation when the outbreak was found. In addition, Brian Spratt of Imperial University was assigned to conduct an independent review of biosecurity at the lab, the agency said.
Martin Shirley, director of the Institute for Animal Health, said the strain had been in "limited use" in recent weeks, but initial investigation had revealed no biosecurity problems, according an Aug 5 AP report. A Merial official, David Biland, said today that investigators had found no biosecurity failures at the company lab, according to the AP.
Officials said that if investigation confirms that the outbreak is associated with the Pirbright lab, it probably means the disease will be confined to nearby cattle, today's AP report said.
A BBC News report said flooding at the affected farm is another possible cause of the outbreak. A flood occurred at the farm on Jul 20, and investigation of the sick cows' mouths indicated that they were infected sometime between Jul 18 and 22, the story said.
Debby Reynolds, DEFRA's chief veterinary officer, said flooding is one of a number of possible factors being considered by investigators, the BBC reported.
DEFRA said it has ordered 300,000 doses of strain-specific vaccine from the UK's vaccine bank but has not decided whether to use it.