CORVALLIS - Voluntary precautions and common sense are the main weapons that Oregon State University animal scientists and veterinarians are recommending to prevent the introduction of foot-and-mouth disease to livestock at OSU Extension and experiment stations.
The highly contagious foot-and-mouth virus causes a high fever and debilitating ulcers on the mouth and feet of cattle, sheep, pigs and other cloven-hoofed animals.
The painful ulcers prevent the animals from eating. Dairy cattle stop producing milk; cattle rapidly lose weight and pregnant animals suffer spontaneous abortions. Complete recovery can take weeks or longer, according to OSU veterinary and animal science experts.
Humans are not susceptible to the disease, but they can be carriers. The hardy foot-and-mouth virus can live on clothes, shoes and the like for weeks and survives even in the respiratory tract.
Foot-and-mouth disease is usually not fatal to the infected animals, but it is economically fatal to livestock farmers and ranchers, OSU experts say. In Oregon, for example, ranchers say an outbreak would devastate their $650 million industry.
The latest outbreak of hoof-and-mouth was reported Feb. 19 in England and has now spread to Europe. Before that, the disease was present in the Middle East, South America and Asia. It has not been reported in the United States since a brief-lived outbreak in California in 1929.
Whether U.S. livestock officials can keep it out this time is uncertain.
"We must be on the alert for this disease in order to protect our livestock," said Don Hansen, OSU Extension Service veterinary specialist. "North America and Australia are the only inhabited continents on the planet free of this disease."
OSU students and faculty returning this week from spring vacation were greeted with signs posted near livestock areas on campus: "BIOSECURITY NOTICE: No Admittance to this facility if you have been outside of the United States in the last 30 days."
The next step would be to require all visitors to the OSU Sheep Center and livestock areas to wear plastic boots and take extra precautions against infection, Hansen said.
OSU has about 2,400 cloven-footed livestock animals, scattered at sites ranging from its Corvallis campus to experiment station herds in Eastern Oregon.
At the OSU Sheep Center, where the annual lambing season is under way, one visitor who saw the cautionary sign voluntarily excluded himself from visiting the 470 ewes and 800 lambs on display because he'd been overseas recently, said James Males, head of the OSU Animal Sciences Department.
"We've had people respect the signs so far," Males said. "We are hoping our security holds."
Hansen said that in addition to the signs, "we are relying on common sense to guide the many OSU personnel who travel to and from Europe on academic and cultural business trips to not bring the bug back with them."
"I would hope they would follow government recommendations for travelers returning from countries that have foot-and-mouth disease," he said. "That is, they shower, wash their clothes, clean and disinfect their shoes before they come back, then shower and disinfect again after they arrive in the U.S."
"We're asking that no one have direct contact with our animals if they have been in rural areas of the U.K. or Europe within the last 10 days," he added.
To disinfect the shoes or other items that may have been exposed, experts suggest adding five teaspoons of household bleach to a gallon of water. Dip a cloth in the bleach solution and thoroughly wipe down all outside surfaces of the item.
Slaughtering all cloven-hoofed animals that were exposed to the virus is the most common method of control. Vaccination may be used after an outbreak to help with control efforts, but it does not completely prevent the disease. Further, if the U.S. began using the vaccine, it would lose its preferred official Foot and Mouth-Free international trade status.
The disease outbreak in Great Britain was first reported Feb. 19 in 27 pigs on a farm near London and has since prompted the slaughter of more than 400,000 animals in the United Kingdom and Europe.
Andrew Clark, state veterinarian for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said any report of a suspected outbreak would prompt the immediate dispatch of a specially trained team of veterinarians with expertise in handling outbreaks of animal diseases.
If the veterinarians confirmed foot-and-mouth disease, a specially-equipped Veterinary Emergency Team Trailer is ready to roll, stocked with everything from protective clothing to portable corral and "squeeze chutes" for transporting infected animals to chains and padlocks to quarantine an outbreak area.
"We can remove the infected animals in minutes," Clark said. "But I can't tell you how much I hope we never have to use it."