Texas Prepares for Foot and Mouth

What would happen if foot and mouth disease (FMD) ran rampant in the United States? If it happened, it likely would be in Texas, which has the highest density of cattle in the United States. Texas regulatory veterinarians and agency representatives recently set out to learn if the state's emergency response system could eradicate FMD (or other foreign animal disease) that might threaten U.S. livestock. The "disease drill" was held June 26-29 at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

"Essentially, it was an exercise to make us more aware and truly prepared to deal with a foot and mouth disease outbreak or another foreign animal disease," explained Bruce Lawhorn, DVM, professor in the Department of Large Animal Medicine and Surgery at Texas A&M's College of Veterinary Medicine and a veterinarian for the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.

Although FMD does not clinically infect horses, they can carry it mechanically on hooves or on the surfaces of their bodies to areas with susceptible livestock. There is potential for horses to carry it in their airways for up to two days, and the disease can travel mechanically by way of contaminated tires on vehicles. Typically, horses in the United States are stabled or pastured where there are different types of livestock kept on the same or adjacent premises. So if FMD were to infect an area, the movement of horses would be limited if not completely stopped. Also, this disease could cripple the U.S. agriculture economy, noted one researcher in Texas.

The United Kingdom (UK) had an outbreak of FMD that began in February. In the media there were horrific images of burning pyres of slaughtered livestock, and reports of devastated farmers who lost their entire herds due to FMD. The UK horse industry was brought to a halt and suffered tremendous losses due to trade and movement restrictions for fear of spreading the disease.

The Texas officials simulated an outbreak of FMD in Brazos County, and completed an exercise designed to eradicate the disease. For instance, they organized the logistics for bulldozers to be brought in to move carcasses, planned the restriction of transport of livestock, and dealt with details right down to the disposal of milk from "infected" animals.

"At least thirty-two state, federal, and local agencies participated," explained Lawhorn. He said the group operated out of a building called the "incident command post" that simulated a field office during an outbreak.

The Texas Emergency Response Team (TERT) exists to handle natural disasters, including hurricanes and floods. State agencies from the forestry service to the health department cooperate under TERT, but plans to handle a livestock emergency had never before been structured under TERT.

"Thanks to the foresight of the governor, the Texas Animal Health Commission is now permanently organized under TERT to be the lead agency, in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's (APHIS) veterinarians for a response to a livestock disaster such as foot and mouth disease," explained Lawhorn.

APHIS has had measures in place to keep FMD out of the United States for many years. The USDA tightened restrictions following the UK outbreak early this year. Information about this effort can be found at www.aphis.usda. gov/oa/fmd/index.html.

"We haven't had foot and mouth since 1929," said Lawhorn, "so we've been doing something right at our inspection stations and ports of entry.

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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