- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2001

U.S. citizens have not been directly affected by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain, and it is hoped that will remain so. However, the possibility is high that one day, Americans will be affected by such a devastating disease, whether foot and mouth, mad cow, or something even more horrifying.

It´s worth noting that there are many differences between the two. Foot and mouth disease is transmitted by a virus. It is highly contagious, though unlikely to sicken humans in any way. It is not even fatal to diseased livestock. Mad cow disease is transmitted by a prion (an infecting protein). It is only slightly contagious, but it is fatal to the few humans who catch it.

One of the reasons for the spread of both diseases is the globalization of the marketplace: On any given Sunday, meat (of any sort) can travel across continents to meet the needs, or at least wants, of consumers. Many diseasing agents within the meat can survive the transit as well. The current strain of foot and mouth originated in meat from India that was fed to swine in Britain.

Yet in the case of foot and mouth, modern agricultural methods seem to deserve little blame, since most of the infected animals were not part of massive "factory farms," where tight packing could have accelerated the spread of the virus. Most of the farms in Britain are family owned, where animals graze on open pasture. Rather, the problem is that foot and mouth is highly contagious it can be carried for days and miles on shoes and hooves, skin and clothing.

The fundamental problem is far older. Bacteria, viruses, and probably prions, have afflicted other species (and one another) for millennia, even though effective human responses, in the form of vaccinations and antibiotics, have been understood and utilized for about two centuries. Britain´s Edward Jenner began vaccinating against smallpox in the early 19th century, and Britain´s Alexander Flemming began working with penicillin in the 1920s.

Moreover, epidemiology remains an inexact science even when outbreaks can be contained and traced with relative ease, as can be the case in Legionnaires disease. More often, the disease has already begun to cause havoc before the disease agent is even known, let alone understood, as exemplified by the tragic spread of HIV and AIDS.

Britain is attempting to contain its foot-and-mouth outbreak by destroying potentially infected animals, and the United States is attempting to do the same through import bans and other precautionary measures. To prevent potential transmission, customs officials could, and probably should, tighten measures.


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