April 11, 2001

Facilities Try to Halt Spread Of Foot-and-Mouth Disease

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While Europe battles with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), the Department of Animal Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has implemented a policy to protect its own research animals from exposure and a potential FMD outbreak.

Beginning in late March, only employees and select individuals have been allowed to enter the dairy, beef, and sheep units of the University’s Teaching and Research Center in Harford, N.Y.

The same policy now also applies to the Cornell Swine Farm, located in Ithaca.

“Only the workers and research people from campus are allowed in the units. If graduate students are working on a project, they can work with the animals for their experiments,” said Associate Prof. Larry Chase, animal science.

According to Prof. Alan Bell, chair of animal science the ban will remain in effect until future notice.

“[The ban] will not be [lifted] until we are convinced that the present European outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease has been controlled,” Bell said in a memorandum to his department.

Animals contract FMD through a transmittable virus. As the disease develops, lesions form on the host’s mouth and hooves, forcing the animals to eat less in order to avoid pain. The animals then become lethargic and begin to produce sticky saliva.

Young animals have a high risk of dying from the disease, while many older animals — though they may be incapacitated — can survive the virus. Cows produce less milk and affected animals can suffer severe weight loss. Ultimately, the food production industries lose money since the sick livestock cannot yield the usual maximum of meat or milk.

“The animals have a high [body] temperature and reduced productivity. It won’t affect the quality of the meat or milk. The animal just won’t be as healthy,” Chase said.

Restricted access to the facilities is enforced in order to reduce the risk of humans passing off the disease to the animals. FMD is an airborne disease, and it can live in a person’s nasal passages for up to 28 hours.

Humans cannot contract the virus, but if they come in contact with FMD through other people, clothing, or vehicles, they can become carriers of FMD and transmit the disease to the animals they encounter.

“In some dairy farms, they make you put on boots over your regular boots in order for you to walk in [the dairy farm],” said Sara Ackerman ’04, remarking on precautionary procedures some farms use. “If you have tours [of Cornell’s animal units] and random people are coming in, you don’t know where they have been.”

Introduction of contaminated animals into a herd can also spread the disease. However, this is not a concern for Chase.

“We have closed herds, so we don’t have to bring in new animals,” he said.

Bell explained how Cornell’s policy can help.

“We can offer reasonable but responsible courses of action to minimize risk of introduction of foot-and-mouth disease to Cornell animals,” he said.

The Department of Animal Science’s safety move may set a precedent for other institutions, Cornell dairy experts suspect. Already other universities and agricultural organizations have implemented similar preventative measures for their farm animals.

“This is a research institution, so you don’t want to ruin things. Many farmers look to Cornell for guidance, and if they see how Cornell is dealing with this, they will take precautions on their own farms,” Ackerman said.

Alongside Cornell, the U.S. government has taken measures to lessen the possibility of an outbreak.

Stricter rules have been implemented for importing live or fresh swine. Customs officers also inspect the luggage of travelers who have been exposed to European farms or animals. Dirty clothing and shoes from those travelers must be disinfected before the people are allowed to go to their respective homes.

It’s been a long time since the last outbreak of FMD struck the United States. “We haven’t had it [FMD] in the United States since 1929,” Chase said.

Archived article by Kelly Samuels