British farm report bleak

Chief scientist says Britain could lose half its livestock

`A disaster scenario'

Blair urged to cancel general elections

March 24, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Britain faces "a very large epidemic" of foot-and-mouth disease that could strike more than 4,000 sites by June, according to a government-commissioned a report that shocked the country's besieged agricultural industry yesterday.

With foot-and-mouth cases at 514 sites already recorded and more than 480,000 animals either slaughtered or due to be killed, the British public and government have yet to come to grips with the fast-moving disease.

The chief government scientist, David King, said that Britain could lose half its 63 million livestock animals.

He supported measures to speed the killing of infected animals and a proposal to cull of all animals within two miles of infected sites.

It was unclear last night whether the government had approved such a sweeping plan.

"In the worst-case scenario, out of control means that we might even lose 50 percent of the livestock of Great Britain," King told the British Broadcasting Corp. in an interview.

One National Farmers Union regional leader, David Hill, said that if the disease spirals to more than 4,000 sites, the country faces "a disaster scenario."

"That is getting horrendous, that is nearly 3 million animals, affecting a massive swath of countryside," Hill said. "It also implies a very long tail while it burns itself out. The effect of that on the other industries, the tourist industry, the transportation industry, the cattle markets ... is just unthinkable."

The disease, which affects cloven-hoofed animals such as pigs, sheep and cattle - but rarely humans - has brought Britain's agriculture industry to its knees, kept vast areas of the countryside out of bounds to tourists and hikers and clouded British Prime Minister Tony Blair's plans to hold a general election May 3.

Yesterday's report showed the British that the disease has spun out of control.

Compiled by three teams of disease specialists for Britain's Ministry of Agriculture, the report's message was chillingly clear: Create a firebreak for the illness or risk the infection becoming endemic to Britain.

"We are all agreed that it is going to get a lot worse before it gets better," said one of the report's authors, Mark Woolhouse, of the University of Edinburgh's veterinary epidemiology department.

Woolhouse said in a BBC interview, "It is clear that this epidemic is indeed out of control, and therefore we have to consider other options."

Predicting that the number of places where the disease exists will "rise steeply" to as many as 70 a day in the next two weeks, the report said the epidemic "will grow fast in the next few weeks and continue for many months."

The report warned that "further drastic action" is needed to bring the disease "under control." Otherwise the illness "will become established in Britain."

The experts called for "speedier slaughter" of infected animals and the killing of "all susceptible species around infected farms," a "combined strategy," that "could reduce the epidemic substantially."

King, who is advising Blair, said that "the operational team has been asked by the prime minister to produce the reduction of the [culling] time to 24 hours and then introduce a firewall cull."

Britain has tried to stamp out the disease by slaughtering diseased cattle, killing healthy animals near infected farms in the three worst affected areas of the country and limiting movement of livestock.

British government leaders still seemed to be hoping against hope that they won't have to resort to a costly program of mass immunization, which would keep British meat out of export markets many months longer than a mass kill of animals.

"I want to avoid vaccination if I can, but if it is necessary to bring the disease under control in a speedier way, then, of course, I have a duty to consider it," Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said during a news conference.

The last time foot-and-mouth disease took such a toll in Britain was in 1967, when 1,200 farms were infected and 430,000 animals slaughtered.

In their report yesterday, the experts said this year's epidemic was "quite different," from the 1967 outbreak.

"In 2001 more of the country is affected, sheep are an important reservoir of infection, the scale of dissemination by animal movement was enormous early on," the report said. "In addition, the size of flocks and herds means the scale of operations is very big."

With piles of dead animals burning in the countryside, farmers tearfully recounting their tales of woe nightly on television and supermarkets bringing in high-priced imported meat to keep the shelves stocked, pressure is mounting on Blair to call off plans for a May 3 general election.

The British prime minister could wait another year to go to the polls. So far, Blair has rejected pleas from farmers and leaders of the opposition Conservatives to halt election plans.

One local newspaper poll showed more than half the voters in Blair's parliamentary district were against a May 3 election.

Yesterday, Blair set a 10-day deadline to call an election when he was caught on camera discussing the matter with European Union Commission president Romano Prodi at the opening of a two-day summit in Stockholm, Sweden.

Blair later explained, "People ask me about elections - even my colleagues here ask me about elections - but my priority has to be getting on top of this [foot-and-mouth] disease and eradicating it." He also said that "it is going to be a long haul," to end the outbreak.

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