Programme of jabs would cost billions in lost exports

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The Independent Online

A national vaccination programme for foot-and-mouth, which would put paid to Britain's "disease-free" status, could cost tens of billions of pounds in lost exports.

A national vaccination programme for foot-and-mouth, which would put paid to Britain's "disease-free" status, could cost tens of billions of pounds in lost exports.

If the UK had instigated a vaccination programme after the last serious epidemic in 1967, it would have cost the country about £60bn, according to a study by Newcastle University's Centre for Rural Economy. The report's author, Professor David Harvey, said the value of British livestock and meat exports was now about £500m a year, and had been as high as £1bn.

"Some 30 per cent of our sheep flocks and their shepherds depend on that export trade for their existence. Without it our hills and uplands, and the communities that go with them, would look very different," he added.

"In short, control of this disease is worth £1.2bn for each and every year we are free of it. And being free is in the public good. So we have to take a collective, public decision about what to do about it."

Vaccines against foot-and-mouth do not prevent animals from being carriers of the virus and, with current vaccines, it is impossible to distinguish a vaccinated animal from one that is infected. A policy of controlling foot-and-mouth by prophylactic vaccination may result in the disease becoming endemic and would lead to other countries banning British livestock and produce.

A national vaccination programme would require all cattle, sheep, goats and possibly pigs to be injected twice a year. Although they would be protected against the symptoms of the disease, their ability to incubate the virus would inevitably lead to reservoirs of disease in the wild animal population.

The report says: "Based on the costs estimated after 1967, the total capitalisation costs of a vaccination programme run for the 34 years since then would be about £5bn in today's money. On top of this cost would be the dislocation of other rural activities around the outbreaks."

It adds: "Our export trade would also be severely compromised under this option. In the last 34 years our exports have generated a cumulative sum of £54bn. Vaccination would be an extremely expensive option."

A slaughter policy, although costly in the short term, is more economical over a longer period. Slaughtering animals in the 1967 epidemic cost about £610m in today's money, not including effects on tourism. If the present epidemic runs for as long as the last one, the total cost including the price of lost tourism could be up to £10bn using the most pessimistic assumptions, the report says.

"Even so, according to the benefits of being disease-free [£1.2bn a year], we could afford such an expensive epidemic once every 10 years and still come out ahead. And we surely can learn enough about the present catastrophe to prevent such frequent occurrence."

Suggestions that vaccination could help to control the current epidemic would only work if all vaccinated animals were subsequently culled. It might be quicker, cheaper and more efficient to cull straight away rather than waste time on vaccines, which do not begin to work for several weeks.