April 24, 2001 -- A slaughterhouse worker who may have Britain's first human case of foot-and-mouth disease in decades may have caught it when a rotting carcass he was carrying exploded, spraying entrails into his mouth, the government said today.
"My understanding is that [the man] was moving a decomposing carcass of a cow and that carcass exploded and the fluid went into his mouth," a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters.
But the spokesman emphasized that he only released the gruesome description to underline how unusual it was for a human to contract the disease. "I only say this to illustrate how highly unusual the circumstances were regarding this potential contraction," he said.
Two More Possible Cases
British authorities have yet to confirm that the man, who works in Cumbria, northwest England, has contracted the disease. But British authorities say he is showing "all the symptoms" exhibited by the cloven-hoofed animals infected by the disease — blisters on the hands and feet and inside the mouth.
The man, who has not been identified, underwent tests on Monday, but results are not expected for 48 hours. If it is foot-and-mouth, it would be the second human case ever diagnosed in Britain. The previous confirmed human case in Britain was in 1966.
Alarms were further raised today after a spokesman for the government's Public Health Laboratory Services told Reuters there were two more possible cases of human foot-and-mouth.
The Laboratory Services office declined to give any detail on the two new suspected cases, including whether they were people who had been working with infected animals.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, there have been several other cases in which people showed symptoms of foot-and-mouth, authorities said. But none of them tested positive.
Reassuring the Public
British health authorities are now scrambling to reassure the public, as the disease sows turmoil across the famous British countryside and deters potential visitors from around the world.
Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, visiting Luxembourg, stressed today that it is extremely unusual for humans to catch foot-and-mouth. "Events like this can happen … but it is very rare and it's not contagious or life-threatening." he said.
Experts almost universally agree. "It's real rare in humans," said Bruce Lawhorn, a professor and veterinarian at Texas A&M University. Many humans have worked with infected animals without any protection, and very few have ever been affected, he said.
Even after infection, there's not much to worry about because the disease only causes mild, flu-like symptoms in humans. These symptoms clear up in a week or two. "It's almost a non-issue," Lawhorn said.
The only real worry, experts say, is that an infected human might transmit the disease to animals. There is no evidence the disease can be passed from person to person.
Fears of infection, however, aren't the only health worries emerging from the foot-and-mouth outbreak.
Local environmentalists have expressed concerns that the pyres constructed to burn the corpses of infected animals could be a health risk. They say the vast funeral pyres could be spreading potentially cancer-causing chemicals across the country.
On Monday, Environment Minister Michael Meacher acknowledged the concerns after a newspaper quoted unpublished government figures showing that over a six-week period, 500,000 animal corpses had been burned, and 2.2 ounces of deadly dioxins had been emitted into the air.
The government also launched an inquiry.
Dioxins are carcinogens 1,000 times more lethal than arsenic, and may cause birth defects.