ITALY, Parma The European Union and FAO have stepped up efforts to assist countries to prepare for any possible outbreaks of devastating foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in cattle, sheep, goats and other animals, including in the Balkans.
The European Commission for the control of Foot-and-Mouth Disease (EuFMD), the Secretariat of which is based at FAO, operates a broad programme to strengthen the capacity of veterinary services in Europe, given that even a single outbreak of FMD has massive economic implications for the countries and for Europe as a whole.
While not dangerous to human health, the disease causes serious production losses and is a major constraint for international trade. It can also have an impact on rural activities such as tourism. A FMD outbreak in the UK in 2001 cost the country $16 bn. and resulted in 10 million sheep and cattle being culled.
In recent years EuFMD has trained around 500 veterinarians across Europe in immediate response capabilities, has established an emergency training course for vets for crisis situations, has established a network for its member states for contingency planning and a knowledge bank to share experience for improved simulation exercises.
While EU member states are virus free, the virus currently circulates in parts of in the European neighbourhood and in around 100 countries in Africa, the Middle East, large parts of the Eurasian landmass and some areas in South America.
Most years, over 40 countries declare eFMD epidemics and some dramatic jumps of virus strains between continents have recently occurred, affecting the Middle East and North Africa.
One region given special attention by the Commission is the Balkans, which comprises both EU and non-EU member countries, and is closer to infected countries further south and east.
The EuFMD helps countries develop and test contingency plans for rapid response to disease outbreaks before the virus can spread to neighbouring herds or further afield when livestock are transported to market. In any effort to stop the disease spreading, cooperation between neighbouring countries is crucial.
Such plans were tested recently in Bulgaria, Serbia and FYR of Macedonia, where government veterinary services took part in the first-ever desktop simulation of a simultaneous outbreak of FMD in herds in the three countries. Other Balkan countries and Greece took part as observers.