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It’s been 72 years since there was a reported case of foot-and-mouth disease in this country. Agricultural officials hope our luck holds out.

As if the threat of mad cow disease wasn’t enough, now there’s the very real possibility that foot-and-mouth disease might break out here in the U.S. It’s ravaging livestock herds in the United Kingdom; European countries and others are taking precautions to prevent its spread.

The focus now is on containing the disease, but the more basic issue is where did it come from and how. Health and veterinary officials who are tracking the disease say they don’t know why it appeared now, but from all reports, they’re pretty well convinced it was brought in from abroad. Anyone, in any country, involved in the livestock/meat/food industry is keenly aware of the problem and the potential threat.

Foot-and-mouth disease infects animals with a split hoof — livestock such as cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and even deer and other wild animals with a split hoof. Horses, however, are not affected.

The infection causes the animals to develop blisters on their feet and mouths, lose appetite, develop fever and occasionally die. Those animals which survive produce less meat and milk.

The truth is, however, most of the infected animals are destroyed and thousands of others are also killed for fear they may have come in contact with the virus. At least 50-thousand swine, sheep and cattle have been killed so far and more face the same fate.

Farmers who find even one diseased animal in their herds are required to kill and burn all the animals. For them, the disease is not only an emotional trauma, it is also economic. Destruction of the flock is the elimination of their income. The economic impact on individuals and indeed the country is enormous — reports are that the British meat and livestock industry is losing as much as $12 million a week.

Unlike mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease is not a danger to humans and we are told the meat from infected animals is safe to eat. But little of that meat will come to market because diseased animals are destroyed in an effort to prevent the spread of the contagion.

Foot-and-mouth disease is caused by a highly infectious virus that spreads so easily that it’s almost impossible to contain. The virus can be carried by the wind for 30 to 40 miles! It infects anything it touches and as a result can be spread by the soles of shoes, by tires, on grass, food and even from clothing — in addition to animal-to-animal contact.

Since the initial outbreak in England on Feb. 19, when the disease was discovered in a British slaughterhouse, the total has escalated to 107 outbreaks as of this writing. According to British veterinary experts, there’s no end in sight. The last big British outbreak was in 1967 and ended with nearly half a million animals destroyed.

The effect has been stunning. Britain wants to contain it; other countries want to prevent it from being imported. What that means is that anything or anyone crossing borders is suspect.

Ports of entry, such as airports and rail stations, have passengers’ shoes disinfected. Vehicles and streets are sprayed with disinfectants. Leftover food from British planes landing in France is reported to be isolated and burned. Exports of British livestock have been banned as have exports of British milk, meat and other such products.

In England, a major political demonstration was canceled and it appears possible the national census and the upcoming election may be delayed. A major dog show was postponed, racing curtailed and nature parks, zoos and other animal preserves closed. All hunting was banned for a period of time, farm visits canceled and country visits are not advised. Border officials are on the lookout for smuggled animals.

The impact is worldwide. Australia has imposed checks of travelers who’ve visited England; countries such as Denmark, France, Belgium, Ireland, Argentina, Brazil and others are on edge as they investigate possible outbreaks.

In this country, Wisconsin has issued a state-wide warning to anyone who’s been in the United Kingdom in the past 30 days to avoid all farms and zoos in the state. An outbreak would be disastrous to the economy with animals and food products quarantined and herds destroyed.

But let’s come back to the origin of the virus. Officials believe it was brought into Great Britain. In other words, imported. Given the world today, the speed of airline travel and shipping, the trend to open trading borders, the effect of GATT and NAFTA, even the political mindset of many that anything goes if it makes money — is it any wonder that this kind of disaster can occur and spread like wildfire?

While foot-and-mouth is not mad cow disease, the root cause for the spread is the same: easier travel and loose trade. With that, it’s almost impossible to impose and enforce health and safety standards.

What worries me is that in the almost manic desire to open trade, we are involved in another kind of trade — a tradeoff: more profit but lowered standards of food safety. I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy it. If enough people don’t raise holy you-know-what, we’re well on our way to returning to the health problems of the 1900s.

Progress it ain’t! The second millennium indeed!

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