by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
May 5, 2001
LOS ANGELES, May 5, 2001 -- A 1999 study by the University of California=
at Davis obtained by The American Reporter estimates that an outbreak of F= oot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in the state -- which some epidemiologists say is likely -- could cost California $9.3 billion, and the United States an a= dditional $4.2 billion in lost trade. Those losses would be comparable to disasters such as the 1994 Northridge Earthquake and the 1992 Los Angeles r= iots -- and billions could be lost in just the first few days, the study sa= ys.
Foot-and-mouth is a highly contagious viral disease that does not affect= humans, but causes severe blistering and open lesions in the mouth and on= the hooves and teats of susceptible animals. Animals stricken by this fore= ign animal disease become lame, lose weight, stop producing milk and become= debilitated. Among the animals affected are cattle, swine, sheep, goats an= d deer; horses are not.
"Javier Ekboir's estimates for the worst case cost of an outbreak in California are U.S.$9.3 billion to the State plus another U.S.$4.2 billion in l= ost U.S. trade, totaling U.S.$13.5 billion -- referrable to a single state," said epidemiologist Jack Woodall, one of the world's foremost experts on ep= idemiology and disease containment, in a response to an FMD treatment debat= e posted on the respected ProMED-mail international tropical disease mailin= g list on Friday, May 4.
The disease has not struck the United States since an outbreak in Califo= rnia in 1929, which followed a devastating outbreak in 1924, also in Califo= rnia. The disease was last reported in North America in Canada in 1952 and in Mexico in 1954. Today, California's Dept. of Agriculturesays FMD remain= s "a threat," and it has undertaken an extensive educationto reach the stat= e's livestock owners. But like any agency faced with anuncertain epidemic t= hat would be an economic nightmare, its resources aredwarfed by the scale o= f the problem.
Quick detection and immediate control of an outbreak are key. "Ekboir= 's results indicate that a few days could make a difference of billions of dollars in control costs, production losses, and quarantined markets," the university's Agricultural Issues Center said in a press release that accomp= anied publication of Ekboir's 123-page study in 1999.
The entire study is= available online for free from UC Davis at http://www.aic.ucdavis.edu/pub/= EkboirFMD-part1.pdf. (Adobe Acrobat is required to read the file.) Hard cop= ies are also available from the university.
Meanwhile, Texas officials mo= unted a simulated FMD outbreak last November to test the state's responses and determine how long the disease can go unnoticed.
"Even one case of foot-and-mouth disease could stop our ability to trade= livestock and livestock products across state lines and internationally," said Dr. Walter Riggs, area epidemiologist in Texas for the U.S. Department= of Agriculture's Veterinary Services (U.S.DA-APHIS-VS). "Because it is so co= ntagious, and we have so much global trade and travel, this fast-moving dis= ease always poses a threat to North America. It is also an excellent diseas= e for an exercise scenario, as it can affect a wide variety of livestock an= d moves quickly through a population."
Vaccines for the diesease exist, but supplies are extremely limited in the United States. The disease can spread in the air for up to 40 miles, bu= t is more commonly spread through movement of animals from one place to ano= ther, or on farm equipment, bedding, feed, food items, waste, vehicles, and= on people's shoes, clothes, or other personal effects.
Whether or not the disease, which has devastated British herds since th= e outbreak began in early March, will reach the United States and Californi= a is a matter of speculation. The disease seems to have peaked in the Unite= d Kingdom, officials there say.
"We are in a new phase of the disease no= w," Prime Minister Tony Blair cautiously announced on May 4, after some 2.4= million animals were destroyed in a crisis that even forced postponement o= f national elections. But, Mr. Blair warned, "The battle is not over yet. W= e are getting the disease under control."
It was Britain's worst outbreak since 1967, when 400,000 cattle were d= estroyed; a single case on the Isle of Wight was discovered in 1981. The c= ountry had been deemed free of the disease since 1982 until it seemed to ap= pear everywhere at once in early March.
The presence of the disease can wreak havoc on a nation's economy. When= Ecuador was struck with an outbreak in 1995, it was the world's 12th large= st beef producer; today, it barely rates mention,and it may be years before= it will be deemed free of the disease again. Only animals from disease-fr= ee nations can be imported into the United States and most other Western co= untries.
The mass destruction of herds has also lead to desperate acts. Russian authorities, for instance, reported that dead cattle with the disease were "unburied" in another European country and the meat resold in Russia for hu= man consumption. Humans rarely get the disease, and it is not life-threaten= ing when they do. Some 15 cases of suspected human FMD in Great Britain ha= ve been reported, but none were ever confirmed.
Some 33 nations have experienced Foot and Mouth Disease outbreaks since January 2000. But will the disease reach an increasingly vigilant United S= tates, or California? Most experts seem to think it will.
"A recent meet= ing of U.S. federal emergency management officials from a wide array of age= ncies and departments considered the incursion of FMD into the United State= s to be probable instead of possible," said Dr. Tom McGinn, a veterinarian working on the state's task force against FMD lead by the North Carolina De= pt. of Agriculture,in a posting to ProMED-mail.
And despite industry collaboration and intensive state measures such a= s travel controls, inspections and careful monitoring of herds, Ekboir conc= ludes, "introduction of an exotic disease into California's livestockpopula= tion is a real threat." His study addresses the possible introduction of FN= D and the current state policy of eradication if it hits.
"Under the pres= ent action plan to deal with a FMD outbreak, a stamping-out policy -- the s= laughter of all infected and all exposed animals, plus decontamination of i= nfected and exposed premises -- would be implemented. It is highly likely t= hat, under current regulations and preparations, implementation of such pol= icy would face enormous problems, seriously compromising its chances of suc= cess," Ekboir says.
Experts say the disease will spread quickly throughout the entire United= States if it appears anywhere here, but that may depend in part on how the= disease is fought. Some experts favor allowing the disease to run its cou= rse; others would eradicate entire herds if even a single case is identifie= d.
Ekboir, now with a Mexico City institute, was formerly a post-doctoral f= ellow in the Dept. of Agricultural and Resource Economics and the Departmen= t of Medicine and Epidemiology in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis, Calif. He conducted his study in coopera= tion with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and with the support o= f the California Dept. of Food and Agriculture and the California Office of= Veterinary Services, U.S.DA-APHIS.
Joe Shea, Editor-in-Chief of the American Reporter, grew up on a cattle farm in upstate NewYork.