| Back to
Spare our land such insanity again
Editor: Scottish Edition of The Times
Filed 06 Aug 07
was originally published on the 6th August in The TImes.
It is reproduced here with the kind permission of its
author and of the newspaper
The next two to three weeks will be critical.
If, within that time, the Surrey outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease
has been contained, we may be able to breathe again. But the unknowns
are still too great for complacency. Roe deer roaming the wilds
of Surrey can spread the virus, any movements of farm animals before
the disease was detected could be fatal, no one has yet discovered
how the organisms responsible for the outbreak actually escaped.
Until we know more, the chances that more animals in nearby areas
will have been infected remain high.
One thing, however, has changed, and changed for
the better, since the 2001 epidemic. Few experts are arguing any
longer that the mass slaughter of healthy animals is the only way
of containing the disease. That may sound now like a statement of
the obvious. But back in the dark days of that insane period six
years ago, when funeral pyres lit up the night air across the farmland
of Britain, footpaths were barred, and the countryside was virtually
closed down to the public, the scientific and farming establishment
closed ranks against any suggestion that there might be a more humane
approach. In the name of preserving British exports and the marketing
of farm products, seven million animals, most of whom were found
to be free of the disease, were killed, many of them in harrowing
conditions, to the horror of those farmers and vets who were forced
to become involved.
I have lost count of the number of high-ranking
members of the food industry, the farmers’ unions, and senior
scientists to whom I spoke during that time who brushed aside, some
with contempt, the notion that vaccination might be a viable alternative.
I remember asking the government’s chief scientist, Sir David
King, to explain to me why it was not being considered. “I
would need five hours to explain the science to you,” he said.
“Unfortunately I don’t have that time.”
Let us not go back there, however. The fact is
that there has been, since then, a sea change in attitudes within
the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
As recently as the past few months, vaccination has been accepted,
not just as a contingency plan, but as a prime weapon in the battle
to contain the disease. The key argument against its use –
that once our sheep and cattle become vaccinated we can no longer
claim that British animals are free of the disease -- has been quietly
shelved. It was always illogical. Other places, like South America,
where FMD has long been endemic, use vaccination routinely, and
still export their meat, much of it to British supermarkets. We
routinely eat food from vaccinated animals; so does half the world.
More important, perhaps, was the realisation that
the agenda of the food industry and a meat export trade which accounts
for less than one per cent of our exports, should never again take
precedence over the wider needs of rural Britain. The evidence of
those who witnessed at first hand the emotional distress and economic
havoc wrought by mass slaughter in places like Dumfriesshire and
Cumbria, distilled in several clinically argued reports in the aftermath
of the epidemic, has been a powerful engine for change. So too has
the realisation that the science on which so many of those decisions
in 2001 were based, was less sound than we were told.
It was stated then that there were no tests to
distinguish between a vaccinated animal and one which had contracted
the disease. Therefore, it was argued, vaccination would simply
mask the full extent of the epidemic, and carriers of the disease
would be allowed to spread the virus unchecked.
That argument was repeated dutifully by ministers,
while those experienced microbiologists with hands-on experience
of the disease across the world, who argued against it, were ignored.
Again, there is no point in going back into that debate. What is
important now is to record how far science has advanced in the meantime.
There are accepted tests which can distinguish between infected
and vaccinated animals. They are quick and easy to carry out, and
they mean that, if an epidemic takes hold, then only diseased animals
have to be killed. We know, too, that FMD “carriers”
do not infect other animals – the disease is passed on only
by animals or humans who have been in contact with it in its active
Amongst other advances are the so-called “farm-gate”
or “pen-side” tests which allow a vet to carry out on-the-spot
checks to determine whether a herd of cattle or a flock of sheep
have been infected, rather than having to send samples back to a
laboratory. Rapid diagnosis of this kind means that biosecurity
measures can be imposed immediately rather having to wait for the
results of tests.
Quicker diagnosis means not only a swifter response,
but the ability to manufacture and deploy the right kind of vaccine
within a matter of days. If an outbreak looks like spreading across
a region, then vaccination can begin within that area as soon as
it is available, to create a cordon sanitaire around it. Instead
of lorries laden with corpses rumbling down country roads, or burning
furnaces spreading their noxious fumes through the air, animals
can be protected against contracting the disease, and allowed to
I cannot, hand on heart, say that the battle for
the vaccine has been won. There are still those in Defra and elsewhere,
who will argue for slaughter as the only effective response to this
disease. But the case for a humane, civilised and scientifically
sound policy has strengthened over the past few years to the point
where it is beginning to look unassailable. And the most powerful
argument of all to be made in its favour is this: I doubt if any
of us could stomach a repeat of the nightmare of 2001.