Made in Maine: Thoughts on Food, Animals, and Agriculture

Only YOU Can Prevent …

By Donald E. Hoenig, VMD

US Customs FormOn one of my recent flights out of Portland, it was a clear, cloudless morning and the plane flew right over the eastern end of Long Island, New York. As I admired the scene out the window at 33,000 feet, I noticed that I had an amazing view of Plum Island, which lies just off the north fork of Long Island. Plum Island is the site of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s high containment animal health laboratory. It also houses the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research lab. The island is owned entirely by the U.S. government and is the only place in the country where certain highly contagious livestock and poultry pathogens, such as foot and mouth disease virus (FMD), are kept. Special clearance is required to visit Plum Island and security is obviously very tight. Access to the island for workers and visitors is by a short ferry ride. The last time I visited in 2008, the DHS security detail was armed with automatic weapons and didn’t smile too much. Guarding foot and mouth disease virus is serious business.

In March 2001, I was part of the first contingent of ten U.S. veterinarians who travelled to the United Kingdom to assist the British government in battling an outbreak of FMD. (Eventually, over 400 U.S veterinarians would assist in the outbreak response.) The disease had not been present in that country since the late 1960s and agricultural officials were doing everything in their power to contain and eradicate the disease from the British livestock population. The disease was eradicated by October, but at great cost — at least six million animals killed at a cost of $7-10 billion.

FMD is present throughout much of Asia and Africa, but it is rarely seen in Europe and has not been present in the U.S. since 1929. The disease affects all cloven-hooved (two hooves) animals including cattle, sheep, goats, swine, llamas, alpacas, and many wild species, including deer, moose, and elk. It is considered to be the most highly contagious livestock disease and can be spread in many ways — by infected animals who are shedding the virus, by animal-to-animal contact, through the air on dust particles, by manure-contaminated equipment, or by people who may not have cleaned their clothing or boots properly.

FMD has what is referred to as a high morbidity (many animals in the herd get sick, up to 90-95%), but a low mortality (few animals die of the disease). The virus causes vesicles or blisters in the mouth, on the lips, on the teats of the udder, and on the sensitive, growing tissue of the hooves. These blisters quickly rupture causing ulcerations in the affected areas and pain. Affected animals don’t want to walk around and eating becomes very painful. Pregnant animals may abort. Over a period of weeks and months, affected animals can recover, but in the meantime they can spread the disease to other animals in the herd and are a threat to other herds in the region. In the case of dairy cows, milk production goes to zero. Beef cattle and swine lose weight due to decreased appetite. The disease has a devastating impact on the farm’s productivity and income. For these reasons, many countries practice a “stamping out” approach if FMD is discovered. That’s the approach that was taken in the UK in 2001.

What I saw and did in England during the month I spent there had a profound and lasting impact on my life and career. I participated in the destruction of hundreds of healthy sheep and cattle that were not infected but were exposed by proximity to infected herds and deemed to be a threat. I came back depressed and saddened by all the destruction I had witnessed and by the disruption to farmers’ lives and livelihoods. I met farmers who hadn’t left their farm for weeks during the crisis. I sat at farmers’ tables as they cried when I told them their animals would be destroyed. But I also came back energized and determined that we could and should do better for our animals and our farmers. I realized that, while we thought we were prepared for FMD in the U.S., we really weren’t.

In the past 13 years, I’ve been involved in national and regional efforts to enhance and improve our preparedness and response to FMD. Our response plans have been dramatically upgraded. State, federal, and industry stakeholders have held countless meetings and training sessions and conducted numerous tabletop and on-farm, functional exercises to test our plan. A major development in our response planning is the acknowledgement that, if an outbreak becomes widespread, a large-scale FMD vaccination strategy will need to be implemented. Unfortunately, preemptive vaccination is not feasible or practical since there are seven serotypes of FMD virus and over 65 subtypes. Predicting which of these viruses might come to the U.S. is impossible.

Efforts to keep FMD out of the country have also been improved at airports and border crossings through the use enhanced screening techniques and additions to the Beagle brigade, but there are things that individuals can do to keep FMD out of our country. If you travel abroad, please follow U.S. Customs’ rules and don’t bring back agricultural products or food from foreign countries, no matter how tempting. If you’re a livestock farmer and your animals are sick with puzzling signs such as blisters or ulcers, please immediately notify your veterinarian. To paraphrase Smoky the Bear, only YOU can help prevent FMD.

Dr. Hoenig retired as the Maine State Veterinarian in 2012 and, after completing a year-long Congressional Fellowship in Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Washington DC last year, in January 2014 he started working as a part-time Extension Veterinarian for University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Dr. Hoenig invites you to submit questions and comments to Answers to selected questions will appear in future blog posts.