What is foot and mouth disease?

It is the viral disease which is feared the world over because it is so difficult to control. No other disease affecting animals spreads as quickly. Its peculiarity is that cloven-hooved animals are most susceptible, so it is usually found in cattle, sheep, pigs and goats. However, hedgehogs, rats and elephants can also be afflicted.

What are the symptoms?

The most obvious signs are blisters on the foot and mouth. Slobbering and smacking lips are one of the giveaway signs. The animals usually become lame, run up a high temperature and refuse to eat. Cows produce less milk. It rarely kills unless the animal is very young. There is no cure.

So why is it a problem?

The animals never fully recover their prime condition and often suffer from secondary infections. Its worst effects are seen in cows which lose milk yield, abort their calves and can be left sterile.

Can people be infected?

Yes. But it is so rare there has been only one known case in this country and that was 25 years ago.

How is it spread?

The greatest concentrations of the virus are found in the blisters but it spreads to all parts of the body. It can be passed on by direct contact between animals or it can be carried for miles by humans or vehicles.

Under favourable conditions it particularly likes cold and dark it can survive for long periods.

The most worrying aspect is that it can be exhaled by the animals and moisture droplets can travel for up to 150 miles in the right wind conditions.

There is some evidence to support that the last outbreak in Britain, which hit the Isle of Wight in 1981, was caused because the virus was blown over from Brittany in France.

What happened in the last major outbreak?

Between October 1967 and March the following year, 442,000 animals were destroyed in 2,364 outbreaks. Whereas the cost to British farming was estimated at £150 million, only £27 million was paid in compensation. Imported Argentinian meat was said to be the source of the infection.

So was it eradicated after that outbreak?

Apart from the one outbreak in 1981, it hasn't been seen in Britain since.

How was it discovered this time?

A routine veterinary inspection at the Cheale Meats Abattoir in Little Warley, near Brentford, Essex, discovered highly suspicious signs of foot and mouth disease in 27 pigs. Unfortunately experts believe that the abattoir is one of the worst places to find such a virulent disease.

The farm specialises in cull sows, which are too old to produce piglets. Since there are only a few on each farm, lorries tour the countryside picking them up, increasing the risk of spreading the disease. Cheale was supplied by 400 farms.

But was it the source of the outbreak?

No. One of its main suppliers was Burnside farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland. Vets have found evidence that its animals were infected at least a week ago, possibly as long as 28 days ago.

How did the Burnside farm become infected?

There is speculation it may have come into the country on imported meat. One key area that will be looked at is swill fed to pigs. It should be cooked at high temperatures to kill the disease but this is not always the case.

How do you get rid of foot-and-mouth?

The virus can be killed off by heat, low humidity, or some disinfectants.

It is only rarely fatal although it is more likely to kill very young animals. There is no cure for it and it usually runs its course in two or three weeks with most animals recovering.

If most animals don't die why go to such great lengths to eradicate it?

If the disease became widespread in Britain there would be disastrous economic consequences. The most serious effects of the disease in dairy cattle are loss of milk yield, abortion, sterility, chronic mastitis and chronic lameness.

Which other countries have suffered outbreaks of foot-and-mouth?

Among those affected in the last year are Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Kuwait, Malawi, Malaysia, Mongolia, Namibia, Russia, South Africa, Uruguay and Zambia. The last major outbreak of the disease in an EU country was in Greece last year. Foot-and-mouth is endemic in parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America.