Delays in cull have helped virus spread

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The Independent Online

Eighteen new cases of foot-and-mouth disease were confirmed yesterday, bringing the total to 1,338 ­ which could be a sign that the epidemic is at last beginning to turn.



Eighteen new cases of foot-and-mouth disease were confirmed yesterday, bringing the total to 1,338 ­ which could be a sign that the epidemic is at last beginning to turn.

Compared to the 1967/8 epidemic, the total number of cases is still lower: at the same stage then, the number of outbreaks was roughly 2,000, and the number of daily cases was running at about 20 per day.

However, the geographical spread of the latest epidemic is far wider ­ especially given its arrival in Northern Ireland and Cumbria, where it could be very difficult to eradicate.

By this time in 1967/8, the epidemic had peaked from its maximum of 80 cases per day. At present, the highest number of new cases recorded in a day this year is 50. But the delays in culling sick animals ­ the source of repeated criticism by government scientific advisers ­ has allowed the epidemic to continue at a similar level for almost three weeks since 20 March.

Tim Yeo, the shadow Minister of Agriculture, said yesterday: "Eight weeks into this epidemic, one in three of the animals which should have been slaughtered are still alive. Two out of five of the slaughtered animals remain unburied and almost two million animals face distressing welfare problems."

Slow culling has been a prime cause of the epidemic's spread, scientists say. Dr Mark Woolhouse and Dr Alex Donaldson, who are advising the Government on containing the disease, wrote in the science journal Nature last month: "A key point is that the interval between a flock of herd becoming infectious and it being slaughtered must be kept to a minimum.

"This is essentially a logistical problem. During an epidemic in Denmark in 1982, the interval [between notification and culling] averaged 15 hours; that epidemic was contained [by culling] after 22 outbreaks."

In the UK, by contrast, the delay was up to three days until the Army was brought in.

The epidemic does appear to be under control according to the scientific description used by Drs Woolhouse and Donaldson ­ which is that the "case reproduction ratio", the number of animals that each infected animal then infects, is less than one. With the number of cases slowing, that appears to have been achieved.

But yesterday, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) was reluctant to use the phrase itself. A spokeswoman said: "It would be unfair to say that the epidemic is under control.

"But as Professor David King [who is advising the Cabinet] said this morning, the culling policy is beginning to bite, and that seems like the right phrase.

"Overall, the move towards 'under control' is strongly in the right direction."

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