Foot-and-mouth, the highly contagious livestock disease that has swept across Britain, has not been seen in the United States since 1929. If the disease does come to America, federal and state agriculture officials say they have a plan.
The key to containing any outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is to catch the virus early. That means farmers must immediately report any animal with blisters in the mouth or on the feet.
"We need to identify the first case that comes to the United States. Not the 10th, or the 50th or the 100th," says Bob Hillman, president of the U.S. Animal Health Association.
Department of Agriculture officials met with state veterinarians in Washington D.C. today to discuss how to keep the scourge out of the United States. They have developed a plan of action should an American farmer report a case of foot-and-mouth among his animals.
The Agriculture Department has 450 foreign animal disease specialists, one within four hours' drive of every farm in the country. If there were a report of foot-and-mouth on an American farm, the USDA specialists would help local officials respond.
Step One: Quarantine
Step one is to immediately quarantine the farm. Next, tissue samples from the affected animals would be sent to the USDA's Plum Island Animal Disease Center, off the coast of New York — the only government lab authorized to handle the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease virus.
If the diagnosis is confirmed, all the animals on the farm would be destroyed.
"They would depopulate the farm that had the infected animals with a positive diagnosis. There would be rapid surveillance of animals and herds around the area," explains Beth Lautner of the National Pork Producers Council.
For farmers, that could mean economic disaster. "I'd even hate to think about it, what would happen, what could happen," says farmer Burton Peterson, whose family has been raising livestock in Minnesota for three generations.
Step Two: Vaccination
If killing animals does not control the disease, the government may turn to vaccinations, which can slow the spread of the virus. However, vaccines are not 100 percent effective and can mask the disease, making it impossible to tell for sure whether an animal is infected.
"The vaccines currently available today are not real good vaccines," says Hillman.
The United States, Canada and Mexico have developed an elaborate computer model to determine when to use vaccines. It is based on everything from climate — wind can spread the virus — to the number and type of animals in the area, to the wildlife population, which can also spread the virus.
Foot-and-mouth disease is not harmful to humans, but is highly infectious among farm animals, causing them to lose weight, produce less milk and stop giving birth.