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Vigilance Urged On Livestock Epidemic

Scientists on Friday confirmed the government's claim that Britain has contained the foot-and-mouth epidemic that crippled the livestock industry, frightened tourists away and even forced the delay of a nationwide election.

In a report for the journal Nature, researchers from the Center for Tropical Veterinary Medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland warned of the need for continued aggressive action to prevent a resurgence of the livestock disease.

But they said the disease was under control by the end of March, when restrictions on the movement of livestock, people and vehicles between farms were in full force.

The publication followed a statement April 19 by the government's chief scientific adviser, David King, who said the epidemic was "fully under control" — and Prime Minister Tony Blair's assertion last Thursday that Britain was on the verge of defeating the epidemic.

The researchers used a statistical calculation that measured how many new cases each afflicted farm was generating. They found that the number was 3.3 at the beginning of the epidemic, meaning that each case of the disease was leading to three new ones elsewhere.

An epidemic can be considered under control if the number is less than one, and that was achieved by March 30, according to the report, released Friday on Nature's Website. The researchers said the number has been declining ever since, but they stressed the need for continued vigilance.

"Any intensification or relaxation of control efforts could greatly affect the final scale and duration of the epidemic," the researchers said.

Animals at 1,575 farms have been afflicted with the disease since the first case was confirmed Feb. 20. To stem its spread, livestock on those farms were ordered killed within 24 hours after the disease was confirmed at the site and those on neighboring farms had to be killed within two days.

Recently the number of new cases confirmed each day has been in single digits — there were five in the latest 24-hour period — compared to a peak of more than 40 per day.

The foot-and-mouth outbreak all but paralyzed the countryside. Agriculture officials placed tight restrictions on the transport of animals and initially discouraged people from visiting rural areas, for fear they might spread the virus. Farms suspected of having the virus were quarantined.

Television images of slaughtered animals and smoking pyres scared many foreign tourists off, and some domestic travelers have also avoided rural areas, where many country footpaths are still closed. Cancelations caused by the crisis are expected to cost the tourism industry up to $3.6 billion.

The outbreak prompted Prime Minister Tony Blair to forgo his preferred date for national elections. Local elections were scheduled for May 3 and it was thought to be Blair's choice for the national vote as well, but farmers, some bishops and opposition politicians said it would be unseemly to appear focued on politics during a rural crisis. The national election, which Blair is widely favored to win, and the local elections are now scheduled for June 7.

The foot-and-mouth virus is virtually harmless to humans and very hard for them to catch, but is highly contagious in livestock, and an epidemic can devastate a country's exports. Humans can carry the virus on their clothes and spread infection.

More than 2.5 million animals — nearly 4 percent of Britain's livestock — have been slaughtered in efforts to contain the disease. Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said last week that the government expects to spend $820 million to compensate farmers for slaughtered animals.

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