Plea for calm as hundreds call disease helpline

Health risks
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The Independent Online

Downing Street appealed for calm yesterday after hundreds of people contacted medical experts with concerns that they might have contracted foot-and-mouth disease.

Downing Street appealed for calm yesterday after hundreds of people contacted medical experts with concerns that they might have contracted foot-and-mouth disease.

In response to the news that blood samples from three people were being analysed for the virus, the Public Health Laboratory Service was overrun by up to 20 calls an hour. Most were from the parents of children who had hand, foot and mouth disease, which is a different illness.

Scientists stressed that foot-and-mouth in humans was extremely rare and had happened in Britain once, during the 1967 outbreak. Six suspected cases in this outbreak had been false alarms, they said.

Dr Philip Mortimer, a consultant virologist at the Central Public Health Laboratory in London, said: "We have been getting a lot of calls and they obviously reflect public anxiety on this issue ... Hand, foot and mouth disease may have a similar name and similar symptoms but it is a completely separate illness from foot-and-mouth."

Hand, foot and mouth is only found in humans and there are relatively regular outbreaks, particularly among children. It is infectious between humans and causes lesions on the hands, feet and in the mouth.

A Downing Street spokesman asked people to keep "a sense of perspective" because on the rare occasion when foot-and-mouth was contracted by humans it was no worse than a "mild case of the flu.

"There are no risks to the public from foot-and-mouth. Where there are suspected cases, there are exceptional circumstances surrounding them. Even if these cases are confirmed ­ and none of them have been confirmed ­ the symptoms of the illness are not life-threatening." He added that the illness "clears up of its own accord".

Results of tests on the three people suspected of having the disease, including a slaughterman who was sprayed by fluid from a decomposing cow, are not expected until next week.

The Health and Safety Executive has begun an investigation into the incident, involving Paul Stamper, a slaughterman from Dearham in Cumbria. A spokesman for the executive said that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff), and contractors involved in the cull had a responsibility to give employees suitable protective clothing. If they had failed to do so they could be prosecuted.

Meanwhile, landfill operators are facing a possible clash with the Government over their fears that cattle carcasses they have been asked to bury could be incubating BSE. The Environmental Services Association (ESA), which represents 85 per cent of operators, has advised its members not to accept cattle for burial, despite the Government having taken emergency powers to force them to do so.

Dirk Hazell, the association's chief executive, said the Government was considering burying cattle of up to five years. He said the main worry was that cattle of more than 30 months can carry "mad cow" disease without any symptoms.

Mr Hazell said Maff had given no advice on how to ensure that BSE agent was destroyed when cattle were buried and he said that using a form of napalm to burn the cattle appeared the safer option.

"Our advice to members is not to accept cattle for landfill. If the Government uses its emergency powers it would put us in conflict. We are not telling members to break the law but our advice is not to accept cattle. Our concern is that we can say it is completely safe to bury sheep and pigs. We cannot say the same about cattle carcasses. The safest way to deal with them is incineration," Mr Hazell said.

Within the next few days, he will meet Baroness Hayman, an Agriculture minister, to press the case for using petroleum jelly or "civilian napalm" to burn cattle instead of on conventional pyres.

He said that ESA research showed petroleum jelly burnt more cleanly, at higher temperatures and about 36 times faster than conventional pyres. The Government had not made its own risk assessment of pyres, landfills and petroleum jelly public, so there was nothing to cast doubt on the ESA findings, he said.

Government guidelines on disposing of cattle ban the burial of animals born before August 1996, but say those born later can be buried with the permission of a landfill operator.