U.K. Authorities Testing More Cattle for FMD

British authorities were testing for a new outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) Friday, after cattle in a herd grazing several miles away from an initial cluster of cases were suspected of falling ill, raising fears that the virus is spreading.

(Horses cannot be infected by FMD, but can carry the virus on their hooves, skin, hair, and possibly in their nasal passages.)

The chief veterinary officer, Debby Reynolds, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, said cows in a second area of the southern England county of Surrey had shown "mild clinical signs of infections" and announced that a new 1.8-mile, or about three-kilometer, zone had been set up around a farm that was previously unlinked to the outbreak.

Although the case is unconfirmed, Reynolds said the outbreak was a "developing disease situation," renewing worries of a repeat of scenes in 2001, when seven million animals were killed and incinerated on pyres. Britain's agriculture and rural tourism industries were devastated.

The new suspected case is about nine miles from two farms where cases have been confirmed and a third plot where cattle have been killed as a precaution.

If the latest tests prove positive, it would suggest the initial outbreak was not contained and increase the prospect of the virus's infecting herds across southern England.

"The containment and eradication of foot and mouth disease remains our priority," Reynolds said in a statement late Thursday. "This is why we have moved swiftly to put in place a temporary control zone while we investigate this development."

FMD does not typically infect humans, but its appearance among farm animals can have a swift and possibly far-reaching economic impact--several countries have banned imports of British livestock and Britain has voluntarily suspended exports of livestock, meat and milk products and destroyed more than 570 cows since the outbreak was identified last week.

Britain's health and safety agency says there is a "strong probability" that the outbreak originated at the Pirbright laboratory southwest of London and was spread by human movement. The Pirbright complex houses the vaccine maker Merial Animal Health--the British arm of the American-French company Merial--and Britain's Institute of Animal Health.

Merial has said it has found no evidence of breaches in security at the facility.

The Institute of Animal Health said Thursday that new checks of systems to prevent viruses escaping through the facility's water system had reported no problems.

"People are going to be even more apprehensive than they have been throughout the whole of this," Hugh Broom, of the National Farmers' Union, told BBC television.

"It will be worrying for members here and farmers elsewhere in the country."

On Wednesday, Britain relaxed a nationwide ban on moving livestock, believing that the outbreaks had been contained in a region near the Pirbright complex.

Officials said farmers outside the surveillance zone set up around the farms where the outbreaks had occurred would be able to send their animals to slaughterhouses. The first surveillance zone comprised a six-mile radius around the affected farms.

FMD can be carried by wind and on the vehicles and clothes of people who come into contact with infected animals.

The U.K.'s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has designated areas surrounding the affected farms as Surveillance, Protection, or Restricted Zones, depending on proximity. Maps designating the most recent Zone borders can be viewed at www.defra.gov.uk/footandmouth. 

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