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Foot-and-mouth cull challenged

LONDON, England -- With millions of sheep and cows slaughtered, questions are being raised about the best way of tackling the foot-and-mouth crisis.

Many farmers in the worst affected areas have been pushing for a switch to a vaccination strategy.

At stake is Britain's foot-and-mouth free status, which is vital in allowing it access to export markets.

In-depth: Foot-and-mouth: Fear and slaughter 

Lawrence Woodward, director of the Elm Farm Research Centre, which promotes organic agriculture, says this needs to be weighed against the wider impact on the community and other industries, such as tourism.

"In terms of less tangible things -- animal welfare, anxiety and strain to those whose livelihoods are affected -- the costs are indefensible because there is a credible option available."

Soil Association director Patrick Holden says vaccination was adopted in Albania and Macedonia to combat an outbreak five years ago and their disease-free status was eventually restored.

And Peter Kindersley, a wealthy businessman behind a legal challenge to the government's plan, rejects claims that exports would be harmed because tests do not differentiate between the antibodies caused by the vaccine and the disease itself.

"We now have tests where you can tell the difference between a vaccine and an infection, which means you can separate those animals that have been infected or those animals just carrying antibodies because they have been given immunity."

He adds: "What I really want to do is bring out the real science of foot-and-mouth because that's been obscured. What we have is basically a holocaust going on in this country."

But Minister of Agriculture Nick Brown says the pre-emptive "firebreak" programme -- killing healthy sheep and pigs in a three-kilometre zone around infected sites in the worst affected areas -- is vital.

"This is necessary for the whole of the livestock sector. It is not being done for any other reason than to follow the explicit veterinary advice on what is necessary to control the disease."

Alex Donaldson of the Pirbright Laboratory at the Institute for Animal Health, which advises the government, says moves to vaccination would be a diversion of resources and could mean the disease was not completely stamped out.

Both Japan and South Korea suffered foot-and-mouth epidemics last year but while Japan stuck with culling and has regained its foot-and-mouth free status, South Korea chose to vaccinate and has not, says Donaldson.

Greece, the last European Union country to suffer an outbreak, did not vaccinate when foot-and-mouth struck last year and is once again disease-free.

Donaldson says it is the scale of export trade that must determine a country's response, with Britain, a large-scale exporter of livestock and fresh meat, having the most to lose.

The disease is endemic in much of the world and countries deemed foot-and-mouth free by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) impose tight restrictions on imports from countries that are not.

The European Union moved to a bloc-wide policy of non-vaccination in 1991, says Thierry Chillaud of the OIE, with the free borders and large-scale livestock movement meaning quick action is needed in the case of an outbreak.

Vaccination in such foot-and-mouth-free areas can actually increase the risk he argues, with the virus liable to escape from laboratories and flare-ups when it is not administered properly.

But the EU does sell vaccinations to neighbours such as Morocco and Tunisia.

Chillaud says there are three basic approaches:

Firstly there are countries, many of which are in Africa, where the disease is endemic and they cannot afford the vaccination. They are not big exporters of animals and simply live with it.

Next are the countries, many of them in Asia, where there are sporadic outbreaks but a long-term effort to beat it, usually with the help of vaccinations.

Careful management through this process enabled Indonesia to join the third group with disease-free status.

And this must remain the ultimate aim for meat-exporting countries Chillaud argues: eradication not vaccination -- with pyres lit if an outbreak occurs.


• Elm Farm Research Centre
• OIE: Foot-and-mouth
• Institute for Animal Health
• Institute for Animal Health

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