Outbreaks of disease could continue into the autumn, scientists warn

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The Independent Online

Scientific advisers have warned the Government that sporadic outbreaks of foot-and- mouth disease may continue into the autumn unless farmers tighten "biosecurity" to prevent the spread of the virus.

Scientific advisers have warned the Government that sporadic outbreaks of foot-and- mouth disease may continue into the autumn unless farmers tighten "biosecurity" to prevent the spread of the virus.

Experience of former outbreaks suggest the disease – caused by one of the most infectious agents known to science – has the ability to spread to new farms for months after an epidemic has peaked.

The last major epidemic in Britain ran for more than seven months from when it was first reported in October 1967, to the final case being registered in June 1968.

If the current epidemic follows the same pattern, then the last case should occur by the end of September – about 220 days after the crisis began – but few scientists involved in predicting the course of the disease believe that this is by any means certain. "It's a complete mug's game trying to predict the end of the epidemic," said Professor Chris Bostock, head of the Institute for Animal Health and a member of the scientific team advising the Cabinet Office.

Professor David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, has always said it is in the nature of epidemics to be unpredictable, especially in the final stages when a handful of new cases can bubble up without warning. Although foot-and-mouth disease is more easily eradicated in sunny, dry weather this is only when it is present in the environment. The current problem appears to stem from infected sheep being overlooked because they show few if any symptoms of the disease.

Apart from testing sheep for infection, the only effective way of combating further spread is by tightening quarantine and disinfection procedures on farms, scientists have told the Government. Officials from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs believe the recent small-scale disease clusters in areas such as Settle and Thirsk in North Yorkshire, can be traced to the licensed movements of livestock or farm workers."We're pretty sure it's been spread by normal farm activity, a spokeswoman said.

Professor Bostock said: "If we continue and don't let up on the tight measures of biosecurity we should be able to get ahead of it. But no epidemic is identical to the last one."

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