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MSU veterinarian aided UK eradication efforts
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- A Mississippi State University veterinarian was one of several Americans who spent time in the United Kingdom this summer helping contain the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
Dr. Wayne Groce, professor and coordinator of the Office of Special Programs in MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine, was in Great Britain from May 2 through June 1working in that country's foot and mouth disease eradication program. Two other Mississippi veterinarians also served on similar teams at different times.
Groce served as a U.S. Department of Agriculture Emergency Eradication Veterinary Medical Officer. He volunteered for this position when USDA appealed for veterinarians to respond to the United Kingdom's request for international help.
"The United States, the United Kingdom and at least 19 other countries have signed a cooperative agreement to assist each other when crises such as this foot and mouth disease outbreak come up," Groce said.
Since early March, the United States has sent over a team of 12 to 15 veterinarians each week to help. Each team serves at least four weeks and works for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the British equivalent of the USDA.
In February, the United Kingdom suffered a serious outbreak of foot and mouth disease, a highly-contagious viral disease that causes lesions in the mouth and hooves of infected hogs, cattle and sheep. Groce said the disease is thought to have entered the United Kingdom near Newcastle-on-Tyne from an operation that fed hogs improperly cooked table waste thought to have come from restaurants, ships and airlines.
From these infected hogs, the disease spread to sheep. Infected sheep were sold at two weekly sales in the biggest sheep market in the country before health officials knew the disease was present. The disease has no cure, so infected animals must be slaughtered to prevent its further spread. A vaccine is available, but its use is controversial.
"Some say it perpetuates the disease and allows animals to carry the disease without showing signs of it," Groce said. "The vaccine also interferes with the blood test that is done to see if the animal is disease-free."
About half of the island's cases have been in Cumbria, a mountainous region near Scotland. Much of this land is divided into irregularly shaped fields and common grazing areas. Opportunities abound for one farm's contaminated livestock to infect numerous other farms.
"This creates a nightmarish situation when it comes to controlling one of the most contagious diseases known to man," Groce said.
The United Kingdom has 12 million cattle and 41 million sheep in an area not much larger than Mississippi. To contain the disease, numerous animals were slaughtered and extensive surveillance given to those that remained in the area.
"When they identify an infected premise, they slaughter all the animals on the farm and any animals exposed to them. Then they draw a 3 kilometer circle, about 1.8 miles, around the farm. Every animal on a farm even partly inside that circle is put on restrictions and monitored every 48 hours for 16 days and again at 23 days after the infected farm is identified," Groce said.
This monitoring means veterinarians visit each farm and visually inspect every animal on it every two days. Additionally, they physically examine at least 10 percent of these animals each time, searching for any signs of disease.
Veterinarians visiting these farms took careful precautions to avoid contamination. They wore two layers of paper coveralls plus hooded wetsuits, rubber boots and two pairs of gloves. Only their faces could be seen. Veterinarians exposed to diseased animals were taken off monitoring duty for 72 hours so as not to contaminate any healthy animals.
"I stayed unexposed. I never did see the disease," Groce said.
As of mid-June, foot and mouth disease had infected more than 1,700 United Kingdom farms and affected 8,000 neighboring farms. More than 3.3 million animals have been slaughtered at tremendous loss. Since this outbreak happened in a scenic area, the region has lost an estimated $9 billion in tourism revenue, and has had to pay for the activation of large military and civilian groups, and animal health professionals brought in to manage the situation.
The U.S. livestock industry has so far been spared in this outbreak, but Groce said biosecurity is fragile.
"In today's ever-shrinking, interconnected world, the introduction of foreign animal diseases into our farm animal populations is becoming a much greater threat," Groce said. "Vigilance is necessary at all levels of regulatory agencies, marketing systems and production units."
For more information, contact: Dr. Wayne Groce, (662) 325-1103