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The Two Diseases Devastating to European Livestock Industry

Our health correspondent Dr. Emily Senay clears up some confusion about the two illnesses affecting livestock in Europe: foot-and-mouth disease and mad cow disease.

Imports of all animals and animal products to the United States from the European Union are banned because of foot-and-mouth disease. What exactly is foot-and-mouth disease, and can humans get it?

Humans cannot get foot-and-mouth disease--period. But cloven-hoofed animals like cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and deer can. The disease is caused by a virus that is highly contagious and devastating. Right now foot-and-mouth disease has been found in Britain and France. Officials there are working very hard to contain it. It starts with sores on the mouth and feet of these animals and progresses to weakness and sometimes death. But even if they recover they will still be disabled.

What about this country? Can it get here?

There has not been a case of foot-and-mouth disease in the United States since 1929. Of course, officials here want to keep it that way, which is why we are seeing precautions at airports like washing shoes and stopping people from bringing animal products into the country to prevent the disease from being brought in by travelers from Europe. foot-and-mouth has been called the number-one enemy of the US livestock industry.

What is the difference between mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth?

These are two very different problems. What is confusing is that both outbreaks have occurred within months of each other, and this is by coincidence. Mad cow disease affects cattle almost solely--at least as a source for human infection--and causes progressive neurological declines in cattle and humans. It is passed to humans by consuming beef from an infected animal. Mad cow is caused by a very unusual agent called prion. Cows became sick as a result of the practice of using feed that contained brains and nervous tissue of other infected cattle or animals. It takes a while for mad cow disease to set in, and it is not contagious between animals.

foot-and-mouth disease affects a wide variety of animals. It is highly contagious and causes illness very rapidly in animals. The virus that causes foot-and-mouth has been around a long time, unlike mad cow disease, which is really the result of the very recent practice of feeding animals food that contains infected tissue.

And remember that the United States had already banned imports of cattle from Britain because of fear of mad cow disease.

What can be done to stop the spread of both diseases?

In Europe the answer has been to slaughter tens of thousands of animals in the case of foot-and-mouth disease, and millions of cattle in the case of mad cow disease, which is a double blow to the livestock industry there. And because foot-and-mouth disease is so contagious, they have to take the extra precaution of disinfecting farmland and any huans who come into contact with animals, or an area where the disease has been found. With mad cow disease, eliminating contaminated feed will eventually put a stop to the spread of the disease.

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