Breeders welcome new disease test

SCIENTISTS have shown that 38% of sheep farms thought to have foot-and-mouth during the 2001 outbreak did not have the disease. And an East Anglian sheep farmer caught up in the crisis has welcomed news that “pen-side” tests are now being developed to prevent animals suspected of carrying the disease being unnecessarily destroyed in a future outbreak.

SCIENTISTS have shown that 38% of sheep farms thought to have foot-and-mouth during the 2001 outbreak did not have the disease.

And an East Anglian sheep farmer caught up in the crisis has welcomed news that “pen-side” tests are now being developed to prevent animals suspected of carrying the disease being unnecessarily destroyed in a future outbreak.

Tim Crick, of Beach Farm, Benacre, saw 4,000 of his disease-free animals destroyed and burned in a mass cull in March 2001 after the test results arrived too late to save them.

During the outbreak, some 38% of sheep farms and 23% of all livestock farms with suspected cases of the disease were actually disease-free, research by the Institute of Animal Research shows.

But more than one million misdiagnosed animals were slaughtered within 24 hours before lab tests could confirm the disease. The outbreak cost the economy £8.5billion.

The institute is developing tests which could be carried out at the farm, saving vital time in the diagnosis.

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The laboratory test used at the time of the crisis could take several days, but because foot-and-mouth can spread so quickly, the policy was to slaughter animals suspected of having the disease within 24 hours.

“Government policy was to slaughter susceptible livestock on a farm within 24 hours of diagnosis by veterinarians,” said the institute. “The vets made their diagnoses on the basis of symptoms shown by the animals. Sheep played a major role in the spread of the disease.

“However, they showed few clinical signs, making diagnosis on the farm very difficult. Although samples were sent to the laboratory for testing, the time required to get samples to the laboratory and to test them meant that often animals had been killed before the test results were known.

“The research shows that up to 23% of the premises suspected of having FMD did not do so.”

Ironically, Mr Crick received confirmation that two of his flocks had not succumbed to the disease on the very day the giant pyre was lit, and negative results on the third that was culled arrived two days later.

But despite losing about half of his ewes, he consistently backed the Government's actions at this farm as necessary to control the disease.

His flocks from Benacre, Geldeston, near Beccles, and Martlesham were destroyed due to a possible contact with the disease through a lorry which had transported infected animals.

Yesterday, he recalled how difficult it was for vets at the time.

“Unfortunately, the vets didn't really know what they were looking for, because most of them had not seen it before,” he said.

Had pen-side tests with quicker results been available at the time, it would have saved a great deal of heartache for the farm.

“We would have known immediately we hadn't got it,” he said. “The more technology, the better really.”

As it was, it took two or three years for the farm to recover, with its ewes reduced by 50% in the first year, and still at around 75% of their previous size the following year, he said.

The Institute of Animal Health is looking at tests which could be performed on the farm, without having to wait for results from a laboratory. The research is being funded by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the European Union.

A number of detection methods are being looked at which are at the prototype stage. One of these is a test which detects the protein coat of the virus using a disposable device similar to a home pregnancy test. If the virus is present, a blue band forms. This method takes less than 20 minutes and is successful 80% of the time.

They are also looking at a more sensitive test which takes a little longer at around one and half hours, but could be used if the vet still suspects the presence of the disease.

The LAMP test detects the genetic material of the FMD virus. Results can be seen with the naked eye, and if the disease is present, the liquid turns green. The Institute is looking for a partner with whom it can develop the prototype into an affordable test for vets to use on the farm.

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