Foot-and-mouth virus: A global dilemma
LONDON, England (CNN) - As Britain struggles to contain an elusive foot-and-mouth virus, it can take solace in knowing it is far from alone.
Scores of countries, from Korea to Kazakhstan, have found themselves equally vexed by a virus that the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health calls "one of the most contagious animal diseases."
While the current outbreak in Britain has evoked painful memories of a 1967 epidemic, when more than 400,000 animals were slaughtered, some countries have experienced more severe eruptions, more recently.
In 1997, Taiwan was forced to slaughter up to five million pigs which veterinary scientists believed had contracted the virus from an outside source elsewhere in Asia.
The outbreak cost Taiwan, which had previously been free of the disease since 1929, billions of dollars in lost exports, mostly to its largest market, Japan. Today, foot-and-mouth disease remains endemic in the area, defying determined efforts to eradicate it.
The virus is still considered endemic throughout other parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Japan and sporadically appears in other regions deemed to be "free" of the disease by the World Organisation for Animal Health.
The organisation -- widely known by its French acronym, OIE - designates a country as being virus-free based largely on a determination by its members that a country has been transparent in its reporting of foot-and-mouth outbreaks and has taken steps to tackle any potential epidemic.
It is a measure of the virus' prevalence that on February 10 - the day veterinarians detected the first foot-and-mouth cases in Britain - animal health experts at the State Central Veterinary Laboratory in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia also diagnosed the virus.
The Mongolians reported a total of nine outbreaks in two eastern provinces, affecting 655 bovines and two sheep.
Stretching from Bhutan to Zimbabwe
The authorities in the affected provinces have attempted to stamp out the disease by employing quarantines and limiting animal movements in susceptible areas.
Even a partial list of other countries where foot-and-mouth disease has been reported over the past 18 months reads a bit like an atlas: Argentina, Bhutan, Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Greece, Japan, Kuwait, Malawi, Malaysia, Namibia, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, Taipei, Turkey, Uruguay and Zimbabwe.
The United States reported its last outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 1929, while Canada and swathes of Central America have been free of the virus since the early 1950s.
The northern part of South America has been sporadically or endemically affected by foot-and-mouth outbreaks in the past year, with northern areas of Brazil, especially, recently in the spotlight.
In large areas of Africa, Asia and mainland China, reliable information on outbreaks is often difficult to come by since many countries in those regions report on outbreaks irregularly, according to Alex Donaldson, chief of the Pirbright Laboratory of the Institute for Animal Health, in Britain.
"One of the problems is that in the developing world, they haven't got the resources or the will to be bothered about foot-and-mouth disease," Donaldson said.
"They don't treat it seriously because they don't have an export trade. That is the real acid test."
Donaldson said scientists are yet to definitively trace the origins of the virus strain that Britain is currently battling to contain and eradicate.
He believes it would be hasty to conclude, in the absence of concrete evidence, that the virus necessarily came from a country that reports animal exports, though he is almost certain it was transmitted via an animal product.
Donaldson attributes the perceived severity of the crisis in Britain to the fact that the UK has its own developed domestic livestock trade, alongside a "very valuable" export trade.
Thierry Chillaud, of the OIE in Paris, says the high frequency of animal transport and exchanges among many countries makes foot-and-mouth resistant to many efforts to stamp it out. He suggests eradication will come only in the long term.
"It's easier to eradicate bovine plague."
Europe vets to extend UK meat ban
World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE)
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