Ten years after the crisis that hit the UK in 2001, a recent major conference in Edinburgh looked at how best to manage any future outbreak of Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD). The meeting concluded that vaccination could be a way of averting the mass culling of animals that we saw in 2001. I welcome any approach that can minimise the extent of culling, but I haven’t always been so convinced by vaccination and I don’t think it would have been the best response in 2001.
Don’t get me wrong, I never again wish to witness the scenes that I experienced in 2001. I spent a period working as a veterinary officer during the outbreak and, as a vet, it was heartbreaking to supervise the culling of these animals. But the extent to which the disease had spread and the vaccines available ten years ago meant that it was the only option at that time.
That doesn’t mean I think the situation was handled perfectly. In particular, I think that the involvement of the Army should have come much sooner. The timing of the FMD outbreak (in the lead up to a General Election) meant that the Labour Government tried to downplay the extent of the problem and minimise public concerns. Make no mistake – a FMD outbreak is a national emergency and needs to be dealt with as such. Across the UK, the 2001 outbreak is estimated to have cost some £8bn.
In 2001, many argued that vaccination would have been a better, less costly option. But the conditions were not right for this to have been a viable option in 2001. Vaccination against the disease has been used elsewhere but usually as a last resort if other control measures are not working in halting its spread. In my view, vaccination was not an appropriate response in 2001 partly due to the difficulties in differentiating between vaccinated animals and animals that have actually been exposed to the disease. This has significant ramifications for the FMD status of a country from an international trade perspective if trading partners cannot be confident that animals have not been exposed to FMD.
Fortunately, things have moved forward in recent years in the development of a suitable and effective vaccine and now it is possible to tell more reliably the difference between vaccinated animals and infected animals. So, vaccination could and should now be part of the control measures in the face of an outbreak. But although improved vaccination potential is a positive step forward, it still isn’t a silver bullet. Sadly, animals will still need to be culled: it will still involve infected animals and those animals that have been exposed to the disease. But fortunately the numbers involved will be lower.
Crucially, if the use of vaccination is to become more widespread as a response to an outbreak, then pressure will need to be exerted on our partners in the EU so that meat from vaccinated animals can be freely traded in the EU. Unless we can trade freely and the suspicions around vaccinated animals are lifted, the economic impact will not be reduced in a meaningful way.
Another really positive side to the recent meeting in Edinburgh was that it involved, amongst others, the UK and the Scottish Governments. I think devolution has worked well and there are areas of agricultural and animal-related policy that are served effectively by different administrations. But, animal health and disease control is one area where there has to be joined up thinking and dialogue between administrations. Just because a sheep trots across the border from Northumberland into Scotland, it doesn’t make it a different animal affected by a different virus. Joined up thinking can and should work.
My experience in working as a vet in the 2001 FMD outbreak was instrumental in helping me decide to go into politics; there are no vets in the House of Commons, and there is just one in the House of Lords, the pre-eminent Professor Lord Soulsby. A better understanding of animal health issues within our Parliament would, I believe, be a valuable addition and could support better decision-making in animal health issues, both in emergency situations as well as in relation to ongoing issues such as animal transport.
So, ten years on from the crisis of 2001, many lessons have been learned. Learning from the past and using the best evidence available should hopefully ensure that, should FMD strike again, we can deal with the situation better for all concerned, not least the stricken animals.
The implications of FMD cannot be overstated. As we know, if the disease becomes widespread in the United Kingdom, the financial consequences for the agricultural and allied industries are disastrous. Tough control measures taken will prevent the disease affecting countless animals in the future, in addition to preserving our vital but vulnerable agricultural economy.