Updated: Dec 12, 2019
As a new veterinary student it won’t take long till you encounter the highly contagious Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD). Every budding veterinarian in most of the world, will quickly be taught to recognize and report this viral, and sometimes fatal, disease, as FMD can have severe implications for animal farming - all caused by a small Picorna-virus.
Historically, we have known Foot and Mouth Disease for a long time, but it wasn't until in 1897 that it was proven to be caused by a viral infection, and even after that, it was, and in many areas still is, difficult to contain.
In Denmark, before the 1930s, FMD was a regular disease in many cattle-farms, but it was rarely reported, nor was it something farmers or veterinarians worried about, as the losses was often small.
That changed in 1938 though when a massive outbreak of FMD hit. Up towards 50% of Danish cattle was infected. At this point culling was still not common practice, but it put FMD on the map as a disease that should be fought to keep down.
In 1982 another outbreak happened in Denmark, after several years without any signs of the virus, which caused great economic impacts, but also emotional impact on the farmers that watched their whole herd being culled.
Not just in Denmark have FMD had a historical impact. In 2001 UK experienced one of the biggest outbreaks of Foot-and-mouth Disease. 2000 farms was affected and more than 6 million sheep, cattle and pigs was slaughtered. It took 9 months to bring the infection under control, and cost several billion pounds.
The effect of these outbreaks means that most farm vet today will have a radar out for FMD.
Symptoms can vary little, but any vet will know what to do if the animals shows symptoms of high temperature, drooling and ulcers in the mouth. Cows can also form blisters on teats.
Its transmitted in several ways including animal-to-animal spread, aerosol spreading or even on inanimate objects.
In Denmark, and I most other places, FMD is a notifiable disease. This means that anyone, farmer or veterinarian, is legally obliged to inform authorities if they spot the symptoms. Mostly due to the economic impact the disease can have on the whole industry.
In Denmark FMD has been eradicated for 35 years, nonetheless, even the suspicion of FMD would cause a significant stop the import of Danish meat internationally, which is why FMD so closely regulated.
The various transmission ways makes it extremely difficult to assess exactly wherefrom the original virus in an outbreak came , and sometimes even more difficult to contain it. This means that often the first step in combating Foot-and-Mouth Disease is isolation of the farm and surrounding farms, and culling of the whole herd. Followed by disinfection of affected premises, equipment and vehicles.
Critics of the current policies of culling argues that the financial imperative must be balanced against the killing of that many animals. Often the argument is also made, that we should instead improve treatment - instead of resorting straight to culling. However, it should also be noted that the animals suffers when they're infected. The blisters are painful in themselves, and restrict eating and movement.
Treatment is rarely given as the infection often, if the cow isn't put down, will recover by themselves.
Vaccines are available, but the effectiveness of these can vary as, like with other viruses, picornaviridae - the virus that causes FMD - has 7 different serotypes. Vaccination with one serotype will not protect against other serotypes of the virus strain. The vaccines developed often only provides temporary protection as well.
In the end Foot-and-Mouth disease is an awful viral infection that presents a problem for farmers and veterinarians globally, but the fight against it continuous to benefit farmers - but more so, to benefit the animals that suffers under the disease.