The virus can survive for 24 hours after it is picked up on someone's clothing or shoes.

It has been more than 70 years since foot and mouth disease has been diagnosed in the U.S. However, it is only a matter of time before that enviable record falls in the wake of a major outbreaks of the disease in Great Britain and South America.

California veterinarian Dr. Richard Moeller, one of more 2,000 vets marshaled worldwide to eradicate the disease in Great Britain, said it is not a matter of if, but when foot and mouth will spread to the U.S. from either South America or Europe where 70 percent of farm animals in Great Britain have been destroyed so far.

His prediction sent shock waves through his audience at a California Ag 2001 issues forum at the Heritage Complex at the International Agri-Center in Tulare, Calif., sponsored by the Central California chapter of the National Agri-Marketing Association. And well it should shock since his prediction came while standing in epicenter of the U.S. dairy industry. Tulare County is the No. 1 milk producing county in the nation. There are more than 330,000 dairy cows in the county.

Moeller is a diagnostic pathologist with the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory. He went to Great Britain last April to aid in the diagnosis of the disease. He recently returned to the U.S. and his description of the outbreak that so far has resulted in the destruction of 3.5 million of the 5 million farm animals in Great Britain was gut wrenching.

Such an outbreak in the U.S. could have catastrophic consequences far beyond the dairy or any other segment of domestic livestock industry. The only way to control the disease is early diagnosis and destruction of diseased animals not only on the farm where it is found, but on adjacent operations as well.

Wide-ranging effects

Widespread destruction of animals would have devastating consequences for all of agriculture — hay and forage producers, trucking companies and other elements of agriculture in the livestock industry infrastructure. It could also dramatically impact the sale of beef and milk products to consumers, even though foot and mouth is not transmitted to humans.

Moeller said the U.S. has long been diligent in keeping foot and mouth out of the U.S. with its airport and livestock import monitoring programs. However, he said it has also been luck that the virus has not reached North America. The last known case in Canada was 1952.

It was only 48 hours from Moeller's last visit to an infected herd of cattle in Great Britain until he was back on American soil. He knows the importance of sanitation, but others may not. The virus can survive for 24 hours after it is picked up on someone's clothing or shoes. It can remain viable in fecal material for up to six months.

It was spread in Great Britain on trucks and other vehicles. Animal manure was the most common way it was spread in Great Britain. Bird and insects also can carry the virus.

The virus also can be air-carried, but this transmission route requires high humidity, at least 60 percent.

This lessens the chance of air movement transmission in places like the San Joaquin Valley where the humidity is almost always lower than that. However, Moeller said nighttime humidity could be high enough to allow air movement of the virus.

And there is the ever present threat of bioterrorism.

Moeller said the federal government and many state governments have plans in place to deal with outbreaks here. They involve immediate quarantines and elimination of infected animals followed by extensive cleaning of infected barns.

Moeller said it takes seven days for the infected animals to show signs of the disease. Once it is diagnosed, a perimeter is set up around the site. People and animals which have been on the site are also identified and their travels backtracked.

Initially, Great Britain tried to set up a three-kilometer testing radius around infected sites, but that proved impractical and the battle plan was focused on properties adjacent to those as infected with foot and mouth disease. Disease or exposed animals are destroyed and either burned or buried.

Sheep problem

Infected cattle and swine are easily diagnosed, but it is more difficult to diagnose sheep, which is one reason the disease spread so far in Great Britain. Infected sheep were sent to an auction yard where there were thousands of sheep before they were diagnosed.

While the foot and mouth epidemic in Great Britain has been the most widely publicized, an outbreak in Argentine, said Moeller, is very serious and makes the problem in Great Britain seem small by comparison.

When there is an outbreak of the disease, Moeller said it will be important for agriculture to address the issue with a unified voice. That did not happen in the United Kingdom and it only added to the political chaos that followed the destruction of infected animals.

Moeller also said just like in Great Britain, the military or national guard will likely play a role in dealing with any quarantine or animal destruction.

Moeller said it would likely be three or four months before the epidemic in the UK is controlled. Once that is declared, farmers and ranchers must wait at least six months to restock their operations.

e-mail: harry_cline@intertec.com