Foot-and-mouth disease is back in Egypt, causing a state of panic all over the land. A month ago, the agriculture and health ministries declared a state of emergency and, in an effort to limit the spread of the virus
Foot-and-mouth disease is back in Egypt, causing a state of panic all over the land. A month ago, the agriculture and health ministries declared a state of emergency and, in an effort to limit the spread of the virus, several governors issued orders banning the movement of livestock from one governorate to another. So far some 7000 heads of cattle have been lost, while more than 50,000 have caught the infection.
One question that worried people, however, is whether or not foot-and-mouth affects human health. The health ministry issued an official statement which, at least on the surface, looked reassuring. It cited all the facts about the disease, the spread of the virus, and that the disease is known to pose no threat to humans. Yet many wondered how realistic was this reassurance, especially in light of the absence of a concrete plan to adequately dispose of the infected carcasses? In other words, was it possible that, even if foot-and-mouth in itself posed no health threat to humans, the pollution and contamination resulting from the proper removal of the dead animals posed a different, possibly worse, threat?
Foot-and-mouth is a severe plague for animal farming, since it is highly infectious. The virus exists in seven types: A, O, C, Sat1, Sat2, Sat3, and Asia1. It is carried through the air, meaning it can travel some 100km a day, ravaging animal wealth along the way. It can spread through contact with contaminated animals and farming equipment, vehicles, clothing or feed
The virus causes high fever for two or three days, followed by blisters inside the mouth and on the feet, that may rupture and cause lameness.
Humans can be infected with foot-and-mouth through contact with infected animals, but this is extremely rare.
The virus dies at high temperatures, meaning that boiled or pasteurised milk and cooked meat are safe even if coming from an animal infected with the virus. The virus is also destroyed by the gastric juice in the stomach, again meaning that infected milk or meat are no threat.
When humans do get infected, the symptoms are very mild and the treatment with antibiotics easy, accessible, and effective.
The OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) does not rate the disease as threatening to human general health. From 1921 to 1969, only 40 people were infected worldwide, and no deaths were recorded.
In Egypt, according to Amr Qandil, deputy minister of health for precautionary medicine, no infection has been reported on the human level during the current wave of the disease.
Containment of the epidemic demands considerable effort in vaccination, strict monitoring, trade restrictions and quarantines, and occasionally the elimination of millions of animals.
Endemic in Egypt
Watani talked to Fathi al-Nawawi, Professor of Health Controls on meat and derivatives at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Cairo University.
“The foot-and-mouth virus has been endemic in Egypt since the 1960s,” Dr Nawawi says. “The type that had alone existed in Egypt till 2005 was Type O. In 2005 and 2006 Type A appeared, carried into Egypt by imported live cattle, and razing off some eight million heads of cattle.
Egyptian law decrees that imported cattle should be slaughtered at the border. But smugglers were smuggling African calves into Egypt through the Libyan border, which means the borders of Egypt need much tighter monitoring and control in order to prevent livestock crossing.
Today, the matter seems like a replay of history, Dr Nawawi says.
The Research Institute of Animal Health has declared that the virus currently in Egypt is Type Sat 2. In an effort to lose no time to contain the crisis, the government allowed the owner of private farms to import their own vaccines for their cattle.
There are only two possibilities for how the new strain of virus could have come to Egypt, Dr Nawawi says. The first is that live [infected] cattle were imported directly to the farms and were never quarantined; the second is that the infected animals were smuggled through the Egyptian borders to the east, west or south.
Because Egypt is among the countries where the virus is endemic, Dr Nawawi says, the government should adopt an effective nationwide immunisation programme through the public authority for veterinary services. Vaccination, he says, would be every six months.
According to Dr Nawawi, however, such a programme may prove unsustainable at the present time owing to Egypt’s current economic woes which make funds scarce, not to mention the shortage of veterinarians and farmers’ carelessness in committing to specific vaccination times.
The government, Dr Nawawi warns, should make sure sick animals are never slaughtered. It is not a matter of their meat not being infectious once cooked, he says, since the persons who handle or cook the infected meat are themselves liable to infection, and directly become carriers who spread the virus endlessly. Besides, he explains, the non-cooked meat may be used for manufacturing cold cuts or dried meat, which in this case would be unfit for consumption and must be banned.
Dr Nawawi says he cannot sufficiently stress that sick or dead animals should be safely disposed of. This, he says, is a role that must be performed by the Ministry of the Environment, since the carcasses should not be simply buried or dumped in canals or drains; that would only work to contaminate the surrounding soil and water. Pits should be dug some 10 metres deep, padded with quick lime, and the carcasses buried therein.
Dr Nawawi expects the current virus attack to cause huge losses to Egypt’s farm animal wealth.
More serious, however, is that the emergence in Egypt of the new type of virus has exposed serious shortcomings. Whether owing to the breakdown in security following the 25 January Revolution, or the corruption before and after the revolution, infected cattle have entered Egypt. It is up to us, Dr Nawawi says, to bare the shortcomings, the gross negligence, and absence of national conscience which allows this epidemic to rage on.
27 March 2012