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Visiting Great Britain? Beware of Foot And Mouth Disease!

By Steve Paul Johnson
April 6, 2001

British tourism have launched a campaign to urge Americans to visit Great Britain, claiming that there is nothing to fear with Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). Because humans are immune to FMD, they are claiming that it is safe to visit. While this is generally true, what they are not telling us is that Americans can easily bring the virus back to the United States.

If you are thinking about a trip to Great Britain in the near future, perhaps to spend Easter, or do some genealogy research, maybe even visit a cemetery or two, think again!

FMD has reached epidemic proportions throughout England. It is an extremely communicable disease affecting hoofed animals such as cattle, horses, deer, pigs, sheep and goats. Even though it does not tend to affect humans, humans are still excellent carriers of the virus. But humans are not entirely safe. Farmers have reported suffering from mouth blisters and high fevers after handling infected animals.

FMD causes severe blisters appearing on the mouths and hooves of animals. While animals eventually recover, it leaves their bodies debilitated after having used up all their energy to fight off the infection. It also causes them to lose their appetite, worsening the situation. As a result, livestock owners are left with low milk productivity and poor quality of beef.

Confirmed cases of FMD have been mostly concentrated in Great Britain, where the epidemic is said to have started. Originally, it's believed the virus was carried to Great Britain from India through packages of smuggled beef. But because of Britain's low standards, and lack of efficient law enforcement, the virus was allowed to spread across the English countryside, and into other European markets before authorities caught on. In February 25, 2001, a nationwide epidemic was declared in Great Britain.

The virus spreads extremely fast. Just one infected animal can quickly infect hundreds of others in just a couple days. Animals need only walk on infected soil, eat infected grass, drink infected water, or breathe infected air to catch the bug. Considering the cramped quarters of farms and barns, it easy to see just how serious the matter is.

Dr. James Davis of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a division of the United States Department of Agriculture, explains how this virus thrives. "FMD can live outside the body anywhere from hours to days in most conditions", says Dr. Davis. "In colder temperatures it can live up to a month or even longer." Dr. Davis went on to explain how the virus spreads, "They get it by mainly by breathing the air. When you have hundreds of pigs or sheep living in close quarters, it spreads very fast. The wind will blow saliva from their mouths into the air and then deposit it on the grass and hay, and it gets eaten. They can also get it from drinking out of the same trough."

Dr. Davis explained how people can carry the virus. "The virus can be carried by the wind, and then it lands on your clothes, or your hair. You can step into mud or animal dung and carry it on your shoes. Cars are a big problem because they go through mud and splatter it into the wind."

Eating infected meat is also a problem, particularly undercooked beef. Humans can pass the virus through waste, where it comes into contact with insects, rodents, and birds. Dr. Davis adds, "The virus can live inside our bodies and then gets passed through breathing or through waste matter."

Once a person leaves an infected area, the body's own defenses will rid itself of the virus in about five days.

If this still sounds like exaggeration, just ask an American livestock owner. FMD has become such a serious threat that ranchers have taken proactive measures to prevent its infiltration. In its March 29, 2001 edition, The Los Angeles Times reported that California cattle ranches are turing away visitors and pulling their animals out of livestock shows. Harris Ranch, the state's largest ranch with over 100,000 head of cattle, routinely gets two bus loads of tourists each week, but are turning them away. At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, they're turning away foreigners, particularly those from Europe. Other ranches and universities have followed suit.

While this might be seen as overreacting, the USDA does not. It has dipatched APHIS inspectors to airports and other major ports of entry to inspect all travelers and packages coming into the United States from areas infected with FMD. They even have dogs on hand to sniff out specific items susceptible to FMD infection, and will destroy infected property.

If just one animal gets infected with FMD, APHIS inspectors will destroy a livestock owner's entire herd. The virus spreads so fast and so easily, that whole herds must be destroyed to prevent it from moving into other ranches.

Which is exactly what is happening in Great Britain. Entire herds of livestock are being burned, totally devastating the families and businesses who depend on them. As a result, townsfolks are forced to seek employment elsewhere, often leaving town for the bigger cities.

Tourism into the country areas of England have just about come to a stand-still as officials post red signs warning visitors of the outbreak, and advising them to stay away. Hotel owners, curio shops, inns, pubs, and tourist attractions have all been devastated from a lack of tourism.

Should You Travel to Great Britain?

Businesses who rely on tourism will explain that there is nothing to fear, citing the fact that humans are immune to the virus. But they stop short of explaining that Americans can easily bring the virus back to the United States.

British health officials are actually encouraging tourists to stay away from rural areas, in an effort to prevent people from spreading the virus any more than it already has.

The USDA has initiated its own efforts to prevent the spread of FMD into the United States. During your arrival home, you will be asked to complete a Customs Declaration Form identifying where you came from, and specifically if you have been at a farm, a zoo, or came into contact with any farm animals. APHIS is advising persons to answer "yes" if they cannot decide.

In addition, APHIS has prepared a brochure for all persons arriving into the United States from an FMD infected area. It recommends that you:

1. Avoid farms, sale barns, stockyards, animal laboratories, packing houses, zoos, fairs or other animal facilities for 5 days prior to travel.

2. Before travel to the United States, launder or dry clean all clothing and outerwear. All dirt and soil should be removed from shoes by thorough cleaning prior to wiping with cloth dampened with a bleach solution. (5 teaspoons of household bleach in 1 gallon of water). Luggage and personal items (including watches, cameras, laptops, CD players and cell phones), if soiled, should be wiped with a cloth dampened with a bleach solution.

3. Avoid contact with livestock or wildlife for 5 days after arrival in the United States.

If your goal was to get out to England in time for Easter, you may want to give it another thought. While it is safe for humans to vist there, the real concern is bringing the virus back home. If your plan is to go out into the countryside, it's best to forget about it until after outbreak has subsided. If your plan is to remain in the metropolitan areas (provided that you stay away from zoos and parks), there is little to worry about.

If you have already purchased airplane tickets, you might check with the airline about cancellations. Northwest Airlines have fielded so many requests for cancellations from Britain-bound travelers, they have waived the cancellation fee!

- Steve Paul Johnson

For more information about FMD, visit these websites:

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