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U.S. livestock called at risk for foot-and-mouth disease outbreak

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EVANSVILLE, Ind., March 20 (UPI) — A new government report has found that the United States is woefully unprepared to contain an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among the nation’s livestock.

The report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office cites an insufficient supply of foot-and-mouth disease vaccines as a primary cause.

“The current vaccine supply would be sufficient to protect about 14 percent of Texas’s cattle or about 4 percent of Iowa’s swine,” the report said.

This vaccine shortage would render the U.S. Department of Agriculture unable to quickly contain an outbreak. And that could cost the agriculture economy billions of dollars, the report said.

“Speaking for pork, we’d immediately lose our export market, which would be catastrophic,” said Jim Monroe, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. “It would be devastating for the world economy.”

Foot-and-mouth disease is transmitted by a virus and is highly contagious among hooved animals. It causes painful lesions on their hooves and mouths.

It is rarely transmitted to humans, and when they do get it, the symptoms are usually mild, according to the European Center for Disease Control. Humans can only become infected when they’ve had direct contact with a diseased animal.

During the last large foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001, no humans contracted the disease, according to the center.

However, the outbreak devastated the UK’s livestock industry.

Within 24 hours of the first case being reported, both the European Commission and the United States halted all trade in meat, milk or live animals. With no vaccines to inoculate the healthy animals, culling herds was the only option to contain the disease.

By the time the disease was contained, more than 2,000 animals had been reported sick. But more than 4 million were culled, according to U.K. government statistics.

The Meat and Livestock Commission estimated that the actual number of animals killed was closer to 10 million, including those killed because of lack of feed or a market, and babies killed with their mothers.

Outbreaks elsewhere in the world have had similar impact. According to the Australian government, a 2010-2011 outbreak in the Republic of Korea cost that nation some $2.7 billion.

Though the U.S. has not had a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 90 years — the last U.S. outbreak was contained in 1929, according to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service — the disease it is common in many other countries. And the U.K.’s 2001 experience is a cautionary tale for the American livestock industry for what can happen without adequate supplies of vaccines, experts said.

Foot-and-mouth disease “has the potential to spread widely and rapidly, debilitating our herds,” Craig Uden, the president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said during a congressional hearing last year on creating a vaccine bank for the virus.

Livestock associations have pushed for years for Congress to fund a such a vaccine bank, Monroe said. They were finally successful last year. Congress passed legislation funding livestock vaccines with the 2018 Farm Bill.

It is unclear whether the Department of Agriculture will exclusively create a foot-and-mouth disease vaccine bank or use the funds to stock a wider variety of vaccines. Monroe and other livestock groups hope the money will be directed toward that virus.

“Right now, we don’t have enough vaccine to contain even a small outbreak,” Monroe said.

The GAO’s report was requested by U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., as the chairman of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; and U.S. Sen. Gary C. Peters, D-Mich., as ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Neither Senate committee responded to UPI calls for comment.

In response to the report, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service agreed that improving preparedness for a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak was important.

“This disease would have a significant impact on our livestock industry and our farmers and ranchers,” Joelle Hayden, a spokeswoman for APHIS, said in an email.

“We continue to work on our preparations and will use the GAO recommendations to help us strengthen our efforts. We will also continue our constant effort to keep this disease from entering the U.S. in the first place.”

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