Foot and Mouth Disrupts Activities

The current outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) in Europe has severely disrupted movement of horses among countries in Europe, and exports to the United States and other overseas countries. The highly contagious disease of cloven-hoofed animals was confirmed in the UK in pigs on Feb. 20. It spread to the Republic of Ireland, France, and the Netherlands, and has resulted in the culling of more than one million head of ruminant livestock. Horses are not susceptible to the viral infection, but many international barriers and even individual state regulations have been enacted to prevent the transport of horses--and possibly the virus--from FMD-affected areas. For example, Colorado, Virginia, and North Dakota have placed restrictions on or banned the importation of animals from FMD-affected countries.

Many European equestrian competitions and racing festivals have been called off, and training activities throughout affected countries have been limited due to the proximity of premises with infected animals.

Why all the fuss if horses cannot get FMD? Horses can carry the virus mechanically on their bodies, and potentially in their nasal cavities. Since horses are likely to be stabled near cattle, sheep, and pigs, they might pick up the disease on their hair or hooves and introduce the virus to unexposed animals if transported. The virus also can be spread by humans, truck tires, and even by the wind.

The United States has been free of FMD since 1929. To reduce the chance of bringing it back, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has banned specific animal and product imports from European Union countries, but not horses. The USDA established a disinfection protocol 30 years ago for horses imported from FMD-affected and -endemic countries.

"It's hysteria at a high level," explained Tim Cordes, DVM, Senior Staff Veterinarian of Equine Programs at the USDA. He explained that within Europe, officials believe the main culprits in spreading the disease have been trucks on the highways, but no one can verify this. "When you're not sure what the mode of transmission is," he said, "erring to the conservative is not a bad idea."

Additional USDA equine import precautions were announced on April 3. Peter Timoney, FRCVS, PhD, Head of the Gluck Equine Research Center in Lexington, Ky., explained that the precautions require certification of the horse's previous location and three sets of quarantine and strict disinfection procedures (before export from the foreign country, upon arrival at an official federal import station, and after arrival on the destination farm).

"It was shown years ago that humans in highly infectious (FMD) environments may harbor this virus in their nasal chambers for up to 28 hours after such an exposure," explained Timoney. "No such work has been done in the horse, but if we extrapolate from the human research, we see why horses are being kept in quarantine."

Timoney believes that FMD is more likely to be introduced by humans who have not taken necessary precautions than by horses. "That's where the Achilles heel lies, not in the horse," he said. "We cannot certify people--we cannot restrict people traveling from the UK and other FMD-affected countries. We just must accept (their travel history) on an honor code basis."

The horse industry in Europe hopes FMD will subside soon, but officials believe eradication will take months. René Van Weeren, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECVS, explained the situation at Utrecht (Veterinary) University in the Netherlands. "Here at the facility, we cannot receive patients and cannot send home our current patients," he said. "At the moment, everybody is anxiously watching the developments."

A recent newswire story reported that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) "openly hopes the disease crosses the Atlantic" in order to "wake up" meat-eating consumers and producers.

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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