Officials confirm Britain is standing on the verge of an epidemic

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The Independent Online

Britain is standing on the verge of an epidemic, rather than isolated outbreaks, of foot-and-mouth disease, officials confirmed yesterday.

Britain is standing on the verge of an epidemic, rather than isolated outbreaks, of foot-and-mouth disease, officials confirmed yesterday.

With five new cases for the day reported by early evening, government vets were saying privately that if the number reached more than 30 new cases a day it could be declared an epidemic. That would mean that it could take months to eradicate the disease, which can linger on the ground and be passed on clothes and shoes.

A sick animal is so infectious that it can potentially infect hundreds more at distances of more than 10 miles via the air.

Jim Scudamore, the chief veterinary officer, said that as many as 25,000 sheep, cattle and pigs were believed to have passed through three markets at the centre of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in the week before the ban on moving livestock last Friday.

Peter Kingwill, the chairman of the Livestock Auctioneers' Association, said: "In terms of an outbreak, [these figures] are worrying." Tim Harris, the European secretary of the Animal Transportation Association, said the disease had spread faster because of the collapse in the number of abattoirs after the BSE crisis. "These days, animals have to be taken the length and breadth of the country. Why else would you have farms up North going all the way down to Essex?"

Sheep are less prone to pass on the disease than pigs but, even so, hundreds of thousands of them could have been exposed. Scientists from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Institute of Animal Health are trying to find out the exact number infected. The institute is becoming more confident that the first infection occurred around 12 February, on Burnside farm at Haddon-on-the-Wall, Newcastle. "Pigs from that farm were sent to the abattoir weekly. Those sent on 8 February were healthy," said Dr Alex Donaldson, the head of the institute. "But those on the 15th were infected. That would take the date of infection back to 12th or 13th."

The possible source of the infection is still believed to be infected food from overseas which got into the pigs' swill. Dr Donaldson said: "Swill is meant to be boiled. But boiling requires time to cool, so anyone looking to save time and energy might not heat it completely. That would not kill off the virus." But he emphasised that neither Maff or the institute had determined the chain of events.

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